A new creepy – Now Facebook wants to listen to you watching TV

A new patent filed by Facebook would allow it to use your phone's mic to snoop on you.

 |  4-minute read |   29-06-2018
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Even as Facebook faces the heat for its role in facilitating the massive Cambridge Analytica data leak, troubling news has emerged that suggests the Menlo Park-based social media giant remains undeterred in its insidious attempts and has set its heart on playing with fire once again.

At a time when concerns over data security and privacy are touching new highs, a patent filed by Mark Zuckerberg and Co exposes how the social media platform plans to use your phone's mic to monitor your TV viewing habits. 

Interestingly, the news comes barely weeks after Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, testified in front a Congressional committee where he apologised for the part Facebook played in the data breach and reaffirmed the company's commitment to safeguarding data privacy of its users. 

However, a quick look at this new patent will raise questions over the seriousness of the apology.

As the Metro reports, the patent application titled "Broadcast content view analysis based on ambient audio recording" details a system which would allow Facebook to discreetly access the mic on a user's smartphone as soon as it hears a trigger sound embedded in the audio of a TV ad or a program. 

The patent goes on to add that the sound will not be audible to humans, however, for the device in question, it will be a "machine recognisable" high pitched audio just above the "hearing limit of human beings" which will execute a response enabling the smartphone to start recording audio in the room – including any conversation you are having in the phone's vicinity. 

This technology, which could also be seen on future Facebook-branded smart speakers would then match the recording to a database of content already on its servers, and identify not only what a user is watching to then possibly serve them relevant ads, but also recommend content they may be interested in. 


Is it problematic?


Though in principle, a feature like this is only meant to take note of a user's TV watching patterns. However, in reality, it would be doing much more.

While attempting to listen to what is being played on the TV, Facebook with this technology would also be listening in to user conversations which can range from intimate to confidential. 

But that's not even the most problematic part. What's more baffling about the patent is that Facebook plans to listen to its users without them being aware of it. Suffice to say, this scary technology would be a far greater threat to every Facebook user's privacy than the recent data breaches that Facebook has been involved in. 

Not the first such patent

If you find yourself squirming at the idea of Facebook listening into what is going on in your personal life, know that it also plans to keep its eyes on you. 

Earlier last year, tech analytics firm, CBinsights unearthed a patent which details how Facebook is developing ways to track a user's mood using their phone's cameras. 

What sorcery you ask? A very insidious one.

The patent explains how Facebook — in the name of providing users "relevant content" — essentially wants to use any camera it has access to, to record the user and their expressions at any given time. Again, the funny thing here is how the technology behind this would be triggered without the user being intimated and it is scary to think how this patent will leave users across the globe open to Facebook's prying eyes even in their most personal moments.


What can we do?

Even though most patents filed by companies do not turn into technologies that make it to mass market products, and are only used as tools to guard against competing firms gaining an advantage over them, the mere fact that Facebook is even considering such patents shortly after being found guilty of leaking personal data of as many as 250 million users to a voter profiling firm shows how much it cares for our privacy.

Patents such as these are not only extremely invasive in nature, but also open Facebook up to ethical minefields, the likes of which it has been stepping on quite often these days. If such a patent does come into effect, the social media giant, in its attempts to gain data on what the user is watching, will also cross all lines of ethics and indulge in an all-new insidious way of invading our privacy.

Sadly, under the current privacy laws, there won't be much you can do to stop Facebook if it wants to turn such technology into a reality.

Bringing us to the question: is it finally time to delete Facebook and be rid of it for good?   

Also read: How BJP is repeating the same mistakes that eroded Congress' vote bank


Sushant Talwar Sushant Talwar @sushanttalwar

Tech journalist, DailyO

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