India: Facebook's New Creep(y)-ing Patents

Last Updated: 2 January 2019
Article by Yashvi Padhya
Most Read Contributor in India, January 2019

Recently, the social media giant Facebook filed a few controversial patents. They are called controversial because rather than being user-friendly the new patents filed could only be an aid to the revenues of the company itself. The latest patent is the one which can predict your destination before you reach it yourself. This patent has been deemed 'ill-timed' by some since there are still major concerns about the security of the user information and the use of meta-data by the company and this patent only adds to it. The patent is titled 'offline trajectories' and filed with the USPTO on 4th December, 2018. The abstract of the patent reads as under:

"In one embodiment, a method includes determining a current location of a user based on location data received from a client device; and calculating a transition probability of the user transitioning, within a predetermined time window, from the current location to each of a number of candidate geographic locations. The calculating of the transition probability is based at least in part on previously logged location data associated with a number of users who were at the current location. The method also includes determining metadata associated with the user; and calculating an offline probability associated with each of the number of candidate geographic locations using a computer model and the metadata associated with the user. The computer model is generated using machine learning and metadata associated with users who were at the respective candidate geographic location."1

This essentially means that the company can use our previous log-ins and activities and also the corresponding log-ins of the surrounding users to predict our destination even before we reach it and even in offline mode. This method utilizes the huge amounts of meta-data that is with the company attached to each user individually in order to ascertain a probable pattern of movement of the user even before the user can make it. The patent can predict the destination of any of the users even when they are offline and aren't actively using the app. This gives way to many questions but the important one being: How much meta-data does the company have in order to furnish predictions regarding a person's destination?

In addition to the predictive patent mentioned above Facebook has also filed a patent which could use your family photos to target ads which would also use your captions and photos and locations to figure out who you live with.

How the feature works is that Facebook would look at the frequency of the person appearing in the photos and co-ordinate them with the hashtags and captions used with them and predict a user's household2 based on that. The patent would also check message history, tagging history, etc to also check whether the users have the same IP address because that would suggest that they have been connected by the same internet connection or network. This has been done, apparently, to target more specific and relevant ads for the users. Facebook does have every reason to invest more in ads because a major chunk of its revenue (Around $40 billion) was the result of digital advertising.3  The amount of data and the access to third parties by way of this technology would be no help to the present concerns that the clients have regarding the safety of their data. The events that have transpired earlier as well have led to Facebook users are leaving by the millions, and it's not due to the political nature of people's feeds. For many, the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a role in their decision to leave the platform. There was also a whole 'Delete Facebook' movement which took rounds on the social media platforms after the depth of the breach was made public.

 The recent addition of these patents would presumably result in a lack of trust in the services of the company. Even though a spokesperson of the company did tell Buzzfeed that they file for a lot of patents which they do not necessarily intend to use, but the fact that such a technology does exist in the hands of the company which has a significant history regarding data breach and third-party agreements is a cause for alarm. This would result in an increase in revenue for the social media company by furnishing more targeted ads to its users but on the other hand the users are put to an increasing risk of breach of their privacy and also the misuse of their personal data and any other data that the company might possess on them.

These may result in loss of clients for the social media giant in age where people are starting to realize the value and threat of their data in the hands of others.

Footnotes

1 http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=...

2 https://www.theverge.com/2018/11/15/18096724/facebook-photo-family-demog...

3 https://interestingengineering.com/facebooks-new-patent-can-tell-who-use...

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