Patents and Privacy
Privacy is at the forefront of today’s social issues. With the recent Facebook investigations, Cambridge Analytica scandal and the overhaul of how companies and businesses collect and use data under GDPR, the nature of how our data is collated and then implemented is under more scrutiny than ever.
By taking note of the patent activity of today’s technological giants, we can see the slow rise over the years of the reliance on data collection to improve advertising and product effectiveness. In turn, these methods raise concern over how much and what types of data should be collected.
Big Brother is Watching You
Last month, it was revealed that Amazon had filed for a patent that suggests their home smart speaker ‘Amazon Echo’ will be expanding the number of keywords that will activate the device. Currently, the device ‘wakes up’ to the activation phrase ‘Alexa’, however the purpose of this new patent is so the Echo can work out people’s likes and dislikes when responding to trigger phrases such as ‘love’ or ‘hate’ in general conversations. In turn, to then improve recommendations on Amazon’s retail sites. This came under fire for the indication that these devices never turn off, and that they are constantly recording conversations, despite Amazon’s defending that they don’t do this. This echoes reports last year that Facebook were secretly recording conversations to improve their targeted ads.
When Amazon were pushed on this new development, they released a statement to the BBC explaining their rationale – “Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology. Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services."
An understandable stance, however this isn’t an anomaly in the patent world. Google had also been held to account over a very similar venture with their home assistant Google Home. Again, their statement echoed Amazon’s by stating “We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don't. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications.”
However, it must be said that with patents being filed in this fashion, it is undoubtedly where these companies see the next breakthrough and they wouldn’t be focusing their attention on these areas if they weren’t of interest.
Despite several of Apple’s big players such as Tim Cook criticising Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Apple also explored the relationship of data and targeted ads through the world of intellectual property. One patent suggests tracking fitness activity through sensors, to then improve classifying lifestyles of people. Another tracks its user to determine their routine operations and habits.
On the social media side, in what is already a turbulent time for Facebook, a patent shows the company has considered profiling its users' personalities to improve advert effectiveness. The patent describes how personality characteristics, such as emotional stability, could be determined from people's messages and status updates. The patent, first filed in 2012, is in the names of Michael Nowak and Dean Eckles. The patent has been updated twice, most recently in 2016. It then became apparent that the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica claimed that it used a similar technique, known as psychographics, in its work.
To the Future
As earlier mentioned, just because these companies have filed these patents doesn’t immediately mean that these ideas will come to fruition. Companies file tons of new patents that never see the light of day. But it is interesting that by following the patent activity of what are some of the world’s most influential companies, we can see a shift in the way users’ data is collected and used to the benefit of these companies and its advertisers. This goes in hand with the recent trend in the intellectual property market for more electronics patent attorney jobs, in both industry and private practice, and the need for those that specialise in niche areas such as computers, software and AI.
The recent Facebook scandal and implementation of GDPR suggests that companies are now having to be more careful and transparent with these activities, and there are systems being put in place to ensure they are held to account. But in the online world there are plenty of loopholes and as these cases show, numerous things going on behind the scenes that the average Joe isn’t aware of.