Facebook Patent Imagines Triggering Your Phone’s Mic When a Hidden Signal Plays on TV

By Rhett Jones on at

You may have seen the ads that Facebook has been running  in a full-court press to apologise for abusing users privacy. They’re embarrassing. And, it turns out, they may be a sign of things to come. Based on a recently published patent application, Facebook could one day use ads on television to further violate your privacy once you’ve forgotten about all those other times.

First spotted by Metro, the patent is titled “broadcast content view analysis based on ambient audio recording.” (PDF) It describes a system in which an “ambient audio fingerprint or signature” that’s inaudible to the human ear could be embedded in broadcast content like a TV ad. When a hypothetical user is watching this ad, the audio fingerprint could trigger their smartphone or another device to turn on its microphone, begin recording audio and transmit data about it to Facebook.

Diagram of soundwave containing signal, triggering device, and recording ambient audio.

Everything in the patent is written in legalese and is a bit vague about what happens to the audio data. One example scenario imagines that various ambient audio would be eliminated and the content playing on the broadcast would be identified. Data would be collected about the user’s proximity to the audio. Then, the identifying information, time, and identity of the Facebook user would be sent to the social media company for further processing.

In addition to all the data users voluntarily give up, and the incidental data it collects through techniques like browser fingerprinting, Facebook would use this audio information to figure out which ads are most effective. For example, if a user walked away from the TV or changed the channel as soon as the ad began to play, it might consider the ad ineffective or on a subject the user doesn’t find interesting. If the user stays where they are and the audio is loud and clear, Facebook could compare that seeming effective ad with your other data to make better suggestions for its advertising clients.

An example of a broadcasting device communicating with the network and identifying various users in a household.

Yes, this is creepy as hell and feels like someone trying to make a patent for a peephole on a nondescript painting. Surely Facebook wouldn’t start doing this with all of the heat they’re taking from lawmakers and its steady drip of bad publicity since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, would they? We’ve asked Facebook if they have any plans to implement this patent in the event that it’s approved but didn’t receive an immediate reply. Based on the fact that Facebook has been apologising on and off for more than a decade, and its entire business model relies on knowing more about you than its competitors, we’re going to predict that it will definitely do this if it sees the opportunity.

Though this patent was published on June 16, it was filed in December of 2016. There’s a small amount of comfort in knowing that Facebook isn’t actively seeking approval for this at exactly the worst possible time. The social network has only recently convinced concerned people that it isn’t already recording their conversations through its mobile app.

It’s less comforting to know that hundreds of apps already listen out for audio beacons embedded in marketing broadcasts. Maybe Facebook’s patent will infringe on the ones that already exist and it’ll never get approval. But unfortunately, this dystopian future is already a small part of our present. [US Patent and Trademark Office (PDF) via Metro]