For years, Facebook users and journalists have noticed that the service has an unsettling habit of serving up advertisements related to topics they’d often been discussing in their personal lives or had no previous habit of Googling. The question of whether Facebook listens to conversations going on around us has come up so regularly, there’s been a host of investigatory articles and discussions on the topic in 2018 alone. Facebook’s position throughout all this has been consistent: The company claims it does not spy on users by using their smartphone mic to listen in on conversations. It has maintained this position officially since 2016.
But now we know one more additional piece of the puzzle. Facebook might not spy on you in this fashion today — but it wants the patent on spying on you in this way tomorrow.
In a patent application filed on June 14 and first discovered by the UK publication Metro, Facebook requested a patent on exactly the kind of system it has sworn that it never uses. The abstract reads:
An online system analyzes broadcast content viewed by individuals in a household. Each individual in the household is associated with a client device on which a software application module is executed. When the software application module detects one or more broadcasting signals of a content item broadcasted to the household, the software application module records the ambient audio, including audio from the broadcasting device. The software application module sends an identifier of the individual associated with the client device, an ambient audio fingerprint derived from the recorded ambient audio, and time information for the recorded ambient audio to the online system. The online system, based on the ambient audio data, identifies the corresponding individual and content item and logs an impression for the content item upon determination that there was an impression of the identified content item by the identified individual.
The background of the patent application goes into yet more detail on this proposed system, spelling out how, for advertising purposes, it would be advantageous for advertisers to know exactly how and when people are being exposed to their advertisements. It references the use of high-frequency audio being used to trigger this data collection (by embedding the audio within another video or audio stream), but doesn’t necessarily depend on this activation method. Simply bringing a client device within range of a broadcasting device could also trigger the audio collection based on what the patent describes.
Either way, once you approach the broadcasting device, it would transmit a signal to the client device to begin collecting ambient audio data. Then it would search this data to determine what you were exposed to for the purposes of recording audience impressions.
Facebook’s Response? We Won’t USE the Patent
Facebook’s frankly hilarious response to this latest discovery is to argue that sure, it filed for the patent, but it wouldn’t, you know, use it. In a statement to Engadget, Facebook VP and Deputy General Counsel Allen Lo claims the patent was filed “to prevent aggression from other companies” and that “patents tend to focus on future-looking technology that is often speculative in nature and could be commercialized by other companies.”
Facebook has long since exhausted any tenuous credibility it might once have deserved on any topic related to user privacy. Ever noticed that every time Facebook screws up — every single time — it’s in the direction of providing less privacy, fewer protections, and weaker protections for your personal data than the company previously promised? From May 18 to May 27, 14 million Facebook users had their private posts mistakenly made public. Whoops. Facebook regrets the error.
Facebook tracks the things you say. It tracks the things you don’t say. It tracks you when you aren’t on Facebook. It ships VPN applications that double as spyware. It’s signed secret data-sharing sweetheart deals with various hardware manufacturers you never agreed to share your data with. It’s profited from the wholesale abuse of its systems by companies like Cambridge Analytica. Mark Zuckerberg has been pulling from the same “sorry” playbook for literally the past 14 years in ways that make South Park’s send-up of BP in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon seem like a genuine apology. Mark Zuckerberg has never believed in privacy, not least because violating yours has made him one of the richest people on Earth.
Is it possible that Allen Lo is telling the truth? Absolutely. But at this point in the company’s history you’d frankly be an idiot to believe him. At no point since its inception has Facebook given the slightest indication that it meaningfully cares about your privacy. In fact, the one and only thing you can bet on with regard to Facebook is that it’s always about 15 minutes away from its next privacy-related scandal. Does anyone actually believe that a patent like this won’t directly lead to “Facebook admits it gathered everything said inside homes for six weeks” types of headlines at some point in the future? Because if you do, you literally haven’t been paying attention to the past decade of Facebook disasters. This is what happens when you combine “move fast and break things” with “actively corrode the very concept of privacy and declare it a social good.” It’s a feature, not a bug, at least from Facebook’s perspective.
There are complicated reasons why you might recognize these facts and continue to use FB anyway. Maybe you value the benefits of being in touch with friends and loved ones more than you care about the privacy issues. Maybe you use FB professionally. Maybe you simply aren’t all that concerned with privacy in the first place. But it’s long past time to stop pretending that Facebook has or will ever treat user privacy with anything deserving of the phrase “respect.” It never has. It never will. Pretending otherwise extends an objectively unearned benefit of the doubt to a corporation that’s never deserved it.
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