Earlier this month several news sites reported on a patent published by Facebook that had people worried. The application revealed a technology conceptualised by Facebook's research division that would tell mobile phones to subtly record ambient audio through triggers embedded in TV ads or other content.
Many users are already convinced that Facebook listens to us through our phones in the name of targeted advertising. The social network giant has always denied this claim, and now it is also saying that it won't use this patented technology in any of its products.
The patent is titled Broadcast Content View Analysis Based On Ambient Audio Recording and was first picked up by Metro in the UK.
The patent a bit dense but it essentially lays out a system where an "ambient audio fingerprint or signature" could be embedded in a television ad or other similar content. It would be inaudible to humans and trigger a smartphone (or similar device) to record audio.
The data would then be analysed and stored, and can be used to determine whether an individual watched or engaged with ads or other content. The bottom line: it reveals what ads people are most likely to respond to. Possibly so they can be targeted at a later date.
We reached out to Facebook about it and Allen Lo, VP and Deputy General Counsel, Head of Intellectual Property said this in a statement to Gizmodo Australia:
"It is common practice to file patents to prevent aggression from other companies. Because of this, patents tend to focus on future-looking technology that is often speculative in nature and could be commercialized by other companies. The technology in this patent has not been included in any of our products, and never will be. As we’ve said before, we often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patent applications should not be taken as an indication of future product plans."
So apparently we have nothing to worry about when it comes to this particular patent, which was originally filed back in 2016. But considering the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the fact that many believe that Facebook is already listening — it's difficult not to be put on alert by this kind of technology even being theorised.
That being said, Lo isn't wrong when it comes to how patents work — they are often conceptual and never put into practice. Furthermore, patents can involve a myriad of alternative implementations of an idea — so if a finished product does eventually come to life it may not look exactly like it has been laid out on paper.
While we may not see this exact tech in the next few years, it's not difficult to believe this could be a snapshot of what the future may hold for data collection and targeted advertisements. After all, there are plenty of apps that request permission to access your microphone.
When is the last time you checked your permissions?