New Facebook patent to use TVs, phones to spy on people

Wednesday, July 15, 2020
By Paul Martin

by: Franz Walker
Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A new patent filing shows that Facebook is working on an insidious new way to get smartphones to spy on people. The patent would let it hide audio signals on TVs that would trigger smartphones to start listening in on their owners.

According to the filing, published June 14, Facebook would use the system with ads so that it can tell advertisers whether or not people are actually paying attention to their commercials.

Secretly telling phones to start listening and recording

First spotted by Metro, the patent would allow Facebook to hide “a non-human hearable sound” in the audio of a TV ad or other content. While humans can’t hear the sound, smartphones can, and as such, a special signal will be embedded into the sound, which will tell any smartphone that hears it – with the Facebook app installed – to start recording.

The patent states that the recording will focus on “ambient audio,” which Facebook’s patent describes as “distinct and subtle sounds of a particular location created by the environment of the location, such as machinery noise, the sound of distant human movement and speech, creaks from thermal contraction, and air conditioning and plumbing noises in a household.”

Part of what the technology will record will be the actual commercial that triggered it. The reason for this is down to what Facebook wants to use the technology for in the first place – it wants to use the system to see if people are actually paying attention to the ads that trigger them.

The theory seems to be that, should the sound from the “broadcasting device” become muffled, then it means that whoever owns the phone had moved away from the TV. Should that not happen, however, then it’s likely that they were engaged by the ad.

Using this technology, Facebook can find out what ads people are watching, so they can serve more of those ads to them. At the same time, it’ll also allow companies to get a better sense of the size of the audience that has viewed their ad.

Facebook already spies on people

It should come as no surprise that Facebook is looking to try out new technology to figure out what ads its users are being engaged by. Advertising makes up the bulk of Facebook’s business and being able to provide better target ads to people only helps their business. It also should come as no surprise then that Facebook is having phones spy on their owners.

According to Gennie Gebhard, research director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Facebook already uses a myriad of other methods to spy on people through their smartphones, all in the name of its advertising business.

Gebhard mentions how Facebook can already use location services, a feature that can tell where you are and what you may have recently purchased, to profile its users.

“Maybe you’re in an airport, lingering in front of an ad, and that signals to an advertiser that you might be interested in the product,” she said. “Or you’re in a bar, watching a TV show and you get an ad for the TV show. Location services knows you’re in a bar where that show might be popular.”

The sinister part about this is how Facebook can pitch this in a way that seems better for the end-user. Whenever Facebook’s app asks for access to location services on a phone, it’ll claim that this is “to provide more relevant and personalized experiences, like helping you check-in, find local events and get better ads.”

With location services, however, the app only gets a user’s location – everything else is inferred through other data. Recording audio, on the other hand, raises more security and privacy concerns, as it has the potential of actually capturing conversations and audio that users wouldn’t want anyone else to overhear.

Should Facebook actually develop and deploy this technology, then users are going to have to be even more careful with what they say in front of their phones.

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