District of Columbia
The consumer welfare implications associated with the use of algorithmic decision tools, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics
The business model of companies such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google of global, 24-hour surveillance and their global reach make them dangerous to individual privacy and the safe functioning of society. A particularly chilling example is Facebook's patent pending on a death-prediction engine. In "What 7 Creepy Patents Reveal About Facebook," Sahil Chinoy writes in the June 21 2018 New York Times online: Facebook has filed thousands of patent applications since it went public in 2012. One of them describes using forward-facing cameras to analyze your expressions and detect whether youre bored or surprised by what you see on your feed. Another contemplates using your phones microphone to determine which TV show youre watching. Others imagine systems to guess whether youre getting married soon, predict your socioeconomic status and track how much youre sleeping. A review of hundreds of Facebooks patent applications reveals that the company has considered tracking almost every aspect of its users lives: where you are, who you spend time with, whether youre in a romantic relationship, which brands and politicians youre talking about. The company has even attempted to patent a method for predicting when your friends will die. Facebook has said repeatedly that its patent applications should not be taken as indications of future product plans. Most of the technology outlined in these patents has not been included in any of our products, and never will be, Allen Lo, a Facebook vice president and deputy general counsel, and the companys head of intellectual property, said in an email. Taken together, Facebooks patents show a commitment to collecting personal information, despite widespread public criticism of the companys privacy policies and a promise from its chief executive to do better. Here are seven Facebook patent applications that show how the company has contemplated gathering and exploiting your personal information. Reading your relationships One patent application discusses predicting whether youre in a romantic relationship using information such as how many times you visit another users page, the number of people in your profile picture and the percentage of your friends of a different gender. U.S. PATENT APPLICATION NO. 14/295,543: Inferring relationship statuses of users of a social networking system Classifying your personality Another proposes using your posts and messages to infer personality traits. It describes judging your degree of extroversion, openness or emotional stability, then using those characteristics to select which news stories or ads to display. U.S. PATENT NO. 9,740,752: Determining user personality characteristics from social networking system communications and characteristics Predicting your future This patent application describes using your posts and messages, in addition to your credit card transactions and location, to predict when a major life event, such as a birth, death or graduation, is likely to occur. U.S. PATENT APPLICATION NO. 12/839,350: Predicting life changes of members of a social networking system Tracking your routine Another patent application discusses tracking your weekly routine and sending notifications to other users of deviations from the routine. In addition, it describes using your phones location in the middle of the night to establish where you live. U.S. PATENT APPLICATION NO. 15/203,063: Routine deviation notification In some cases, companies file patents defensively, to beat their rivals to a new technology, even if they have no intention of using it. While that could be the case for some of Facebooks patents, many of them imagine new ways to collect, analyze and use personal information and package it for advertisers a process that is essential to the companys business model. In the first quarter of 2018, almost 99 percent of Facebooks revenue came from advertising. As long as Facebook keeps collecting personal information, we should be wary that it could be used for purposes more insidious than targeted advertising, including swaying elections or manipulating users emotions, said Jennifer King, the director of consumer privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. There could be real consequences, she said. Other technology companies have filed unsettling patent applications, too. They include Amazons wristbands for tracking warehouse employees and the Google teddy bear equipped with a camera and a microphone. But with more than two billion monthly active users, most of whom share their thoughts and feelings on the platform, Facebook is amassing our personal details on an unprecedented scale. That isnt likely to change, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. Ive seen no indication that Facebook has changed its commitment to watch everything we do, record everything we do and exploit everything we do, he said.