Apple Inc. sure loves its patents. If it could, the Cupertino, California-based maker of stylish devices would patent the apple itself and then sue every grocery store on the planet. And it’s no secret that the company with more money than God loves to dole a bit out to teams of crack lawyers. Its penchant for litigation is legendary; just ask Samsung. So when the big Macintosh files for yet another patent, it’s hardly newsworthy. Unless, of course, that patent is designed to wage war on spam.
According to several media outlets, including Apple Insider, MacRumors and Business Insider, Apple’s filed a patent for disposable email addresses, a patent that describes a framework for users who wish to minimize the amount of spam that invades their inboxes. The patent was actually filed in 2012, but the story broke because on February 13, the United States Patent and Trademark Office published the application.
The idea goes like this: a user could create a temporary email address, effectively a throwaway that she could then use to sign up for a service, make a purchase, or whatever you will. The temporary address would be linked to a permanent email address, and emails to the throwaway address would be automatically forwarded to the real thing. According to MacRumors, “If the temporary email address is sold by a site or otherwise compromised and begins to receive spam emails, it can simply be disabled and unlinked from the permanent account, effectively ending the spam emails.”
As a bonus, the site goes on to report, “assigning temporary email addresses when signing up for various accounts around the web also allows for specific identification of sites or parties that have misused email addresses. Apple specifies that contextual information can be included in the temporary addresses for easy identification.”
So what’s in it for Apple? Well, money, of course. Exactly how they would make it is unclear, but MacRumors points out that the email would be managed and controlled on the Apple side, with the permanent email address being hidden, and the temporary email, “unlike existing disposable email solutions, would be indistinguishable from standard email addresses.”
Which raises a point about the patent application itself, because there are others offering a similar solution. Google’s gmail, for example, allows you to add a period or series of periods to a gmail address in order to mitigate the cancer known as spam. Or you can add a ‘+’ symbol and create specialized gmail addresses as throwaways. And there are other services that have a similar purpose. In fact, the concept of a throwaway isn’t limited to email addresses. The concept of virtual, disposable credit card numbers has been around for awhile and is gaining some traction after the bevy of security breaches at US retailers like Target and Neiman Marcus.
So how exactly does Apple hope to patent an idea that’s already in play? Who knows? If anyone can do it, they can, and if granted the patent, they’ll probably open their wallet again and target anyone who even fails the sniff test of patent breach. To be fair, the patent application seems to rely on the method that would be used. “While there are a variety of sites that provide access to temporary emails such as Mailinator and Guerrilla Mail, few of these services are able to be linked to a permanent account for ongoing usage until spam occurs and must be checked individually. Apple notes that current disposable email systems are difficult to use,” MacRumors writes. And the gmail solution, unlike Apple’s proposed method, doesn’t offer the ability to completely delete a throwaway email address, per Apple’s solution. That does raise a question, though: can’t Google just modify their service and activate the option to delete throwaways?
Call us skeptical, but Apple has had a spotty record in the past few years in the security arena, even drawing some scrutiny when it finally fessed up and removed claims that the Mac OS was a virus-free platform. And the company loves to sue others while it (ahem) sometimes fails the litmus test of its own creativity, so it’s easy to be cynical about yet another patent filing. In 1994, Steve Jobs famously misquoted Pablo Picasso when he said “good artists copy; great artists steal.” And in 1996, he admitted that Apple had “always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” Whether that’s true or not, hopefully they can do some good with this patent application and help join the fight in stamping out the disease known as spam.