A patent from Facebook came to light earlier this week, depicting technology that Facebook would use to quietly activate a user’s microphone in order to listen to them as they watch ads. How hard can I “nope” out of that?
The details: The patent, filed earlier this month, was originally discovered by Metro. It describes a process by which secret messages embedded in TV ads, inaudible to the human ear, would trigger your smart device to record you while the ad was playing. It would then send the audio to Facebook, in order for it to hear your reaction to the ad. You can view the patent here, complete with stick-figure ballerina.
The context: The idea that Facebook is listening to users is a long-standing theory based on how uncannily its ads seem to target things they believe they’ve mentioned in passing. Mark Zuckerberg addressed this in his Congressional testimony, calling it a “conspiracy theory…that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads” and dismissing it flatly (one of the few questions he gave a decisive answer to that day, I might add).
I’ve even fallen into this mindset myself: I once mentioned Blue Apron briefly to my mother, only to see Blue Apron ads on my Facebook feed within a day. There are other explanations, though. I could have searched something about the company without remembering. Or I could have lingered on a post about them on Facebook, which Facebook mistook for curiosity (no offense, Blue Apron). Facebook’s data collection is so subtle and pervasive that I doubt it needs the audio of my actual conversation to figure it out.
That being said…
Why it matters: Zuckerberg dismissing this as a “conspiracy theory” seems rather laughable, now this patent has come to light. Facebook’s insistence this patent is something they’re filing so they can never use it isn’t exactly reassuring, either.
The creepiest thing about the patent is the idea it can record any ambient audio while the ad is playing. If used, this would be a massive invasion of privacy. And what would prompt the listening to stop? Suppose I turned the TV off in the middle of the ad — would the listening continue indefinitely? Just looking at this patent makes me uncomfortable, and the fact that Facebook — not a company historically known for keeping its users’ secrets on lock — would be the company holding it, even more so.