Facebook patents tech to turn your smartphone into a spy vessel

There are now legions of tales about internet giants using your devices to spy on you/glean your data/monitor your viewing habits/capitalise on your personal life. Facebook has been no exception, and today their long-suffering PR team will likely be in overdrive; the company, it has been revealed, has patented a system that can remotely activate the microphone on smartphones using signals broadcast via television.

Facebook patents tech to turn your smartphone into a spy vessel

The system at hand would use the audio fingerprint embedded in TV shows or ads, setting off the device’s microphone in order to record the “ambient audio of the content item”. In a sinister twist, the audio recorded is inaudible to human ears, meaning users won’t be aware of the data transmitted by the system. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the technology would be used to target adults and children alike (posits the Guardian, drawing from the visual representation of a young girl in the patent’s accompanying diagram), because, really, this is 2018, and integrity is so passé. This Shazam-for-TV-with-serious-moral-caveats would not be activated by the user, making it a more insidious piece of technology.

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The discovery was initially made by the New York Times, which bills the system as a means for broadcasters to glean the data of who is watching their TV shows, and, perhaps more importantly, the accompanying adverts, and for how long. And while proponents of the tech will argue that the data is being harvested in order to ameliorate content recommendation (and targeted ads because, well, late-stage capitalism), it makes unwitting users vulnerable to having their private conversations recorded in the realms of their own homes.

Naturally, Facebook went into damage control mode: “It is common practice to file patents to prevent aggression from other companies,” the company’s head of intellectual property, Allen Lo, told the Guardian, “Because of this, patents tend to focus on future-looking technology that is often speculative in nature and could be commercialised by other companies”. Emphatically, he went on, “The technology in this patent has not been included in any of our products and never will be”. For those keeping track, that’s a similar explanation Uber gave when we asked them about their somewhat troubling drunk-tracking patent.

Nonetheless, it’s troubling news emanating from one of the most powerful companies in the world, whose CEO has previously promised to “do better” in the wake of contentious privacy policies. And despite promises to the contrary, we’re right to be wary. Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at the Stanford Law School, recommended continued vigilance: “As long as Facebook keeps collecting personal information, we should be wary that is could be used for purposes more insidious than targeted advertising, including swaying elections or manipulating users’ emotions,” she told the New York Times. “There could be real consequences.”

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