In the last year, it has become increasingly obvious to the casual user of social media sites that the businesses behind them don’t necessarily care that much about their right to privacy. Whether the organizations were selling data in ways they promised they wouldn’t, or allowing questionable practices concerning censorship, it’s been a rough year.
Now, it seems that Facebook has been looking at new ways to spy on their users, utilizing hidden TV ad messages and signals emitted outside the range of human perception to manipulate users’ cell phones. They even went so far as to patent the idea of being able to utilize “ad-based” content to ‘understand’ the viewing habits of their users, though they claim this wouldn’t analyze ‘language.’
This is an extremely terrifying concept, and it has much more horrifying implications than they stated.
The basic idea behind the patent, according to Facebook’s filing with the U.S. Patent Office, is to allow advertisers to know if people are actually watching their ads on television.
The technology would work by emitting a signal at a frequency people cannot hear, which would activate the microphone on modern cell phones.
Once the phone’s microphone was turned on, it would listen to ambient sounds, attempting to detect if the owner had walked away from the television, muted the ad, or otherwise ignored the content.
Surely, allowing a company with a long history of mishandling private data to record ‘ambient sounds,’ prompted only by the unheard signal at the beginning of a commercial, could not be abused, right?
With so many Americans constantly wed to their mobile devices, it’s not hard to see how this kind of technology could be horridly corrupted.
It’s not a big step to go from ‘recording ambient noise’ to ‘recording individuals at home for extended stretches of time. From there, it’s an even simpler step to get to ‘recording people at their most vulnerable and private moments.’
Allen Lo, one of Facebook’s Vice Presidents and their head of intellectual property, the office responsible for filing and maintaining patents (among other things), said that the patent does not necessarily mean it’s something that they plan to pursue.
Lo said that most of the technology the international agency has patented has never been, and likely will never be, used in any of their products.
According to Schultz, “a patent portfolio” is a map that shows where a company is going to go, and where their technology choices are likely to head in the future.
In other words, the fact that Facebook is patenting this kind of technology suggests that this is the way that they see technology moving, and the direction that they are likely to move along with it.
The company has recently denied that they took any data from microphones or cameras without permission from users, even making the claim in front of Congress in April.
Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie, in a statement he made in March, said that he believes companies like Facebook and other social media organizations have already used microphones to ‘custom tailor’ advertising to users.
Try it yourself. Leave your phone off, have a conversation about something… anything. Then, open your browser or Facebook and see what ads appear.
Furthermore, the social media firm has a less-than-sterling history of protecting data, such as in the CA case.
The fallout of that scandal revealed that though only 270,000 people ever consented to have their data collected by the analytical group, somehow the political consultancy group harvested data from a whopping 87 million people through a ‘loophole.’
It seems that many users are less than open to the idea that Facebook should be listening to them, or watching them, at all, especially without their explicit consent. Simply put, people don’t like the idea that their mobile devices are going to spy on them, no matter what the reason behind it, no matter how ‘innocent’ it may be.
Many users also don’t trust the company with their data at this point, given the number of revelations about their inability (or unwillingness) to take care of their personal information. This is the same company that allowed 270,000 people to somehow give ‘consent’ for 87 million people, after all.
It’s hard to imagine that their ability to control the flow of information recorded as ‘ambient noise’ would be any better, or that it would not be abused in other ways.
Hopefully, the investigative work that caught Facebook with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar will dissuade them from going forward with these plans. However, those technically inclined will be on alert in the future to see if the company once again goes against its public facade.