Though tools are available to remotely lock, clear data and track a stolen smartphone, Apple appears to be looking into ways to identify grab and run thieves. A patent awarded to the company last week outlines a system that would collect data on an iPhone thief – such as photos and fingerprints – and forward it to the owner or the authorities.

If your iPhone goes missing, anti-theft apps can help you locate and secure it. Find My iPhone, for example, allows you to use any computer or another iOS device to show on a map where it is and where it's been, then lock it or erase all personal data remotely.

A new patent, awarded to Apple last week, could see future iOS devices turning their many sensors into eyes and ears to help identify the thief. The document describes a system similar to Find My iPhone, which can be remotely activated to start tracking biometric information on any unauthorized users, including recording fingerprints, photos, video, audio or "forensic user interface information." And it would be sneaky about it too, capturing all that data without letting the thief know (though if Apple launched a major security feature on a new iPhone, we'd likely all know about it as soon as it was announced).

That information would be stored somewhere on the device, hidden away, encrypted and timestamped. Once the owner, or the police, requests it from another device, it's all sent through the cloud to help identify who has the stolen smartphone and where it can be found.

While that sounds useful, it's important to keep in mind that this kind of system might fall into murky legal waters. Would it be legal to record someone without their permission or knowledge, even if they have stolen your phone? And would all that information be accessible by the original owner, or just forwarded straight to the authorities?

Of course, as with any patent, Apple might just be staking a claim in these kinds of systems, and, based on statistics of Apple's used vs. unused patents, the odds that it actually makes it into a future iPhone are slim.

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