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Oct 4, 2011Science and Technology
Exploring Facebook's new patent application: It's no coincidence Mark Zuckerberg was born in 1984

George Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four" envisioned a world subjected to pervasive government surveillance and incessant mind control at the hands of ever-present Big Brother. It seems that now, over 60 years after this dystopian novel’s publication, Big Brother has been reincarnated as the popular social network Facebook. On February 8, 2011, Facebook filed a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) entitled “Communicating Information in a Social Network System about Activities from Another Domain.” The title merely hints at the lengths Facebook will go in its attempt to saturate, track and exploit all aspects of its users’ lives — or, as Facebook sees it, to create “a system for connecting users to content that is most likely to be relevant to each user.”

The patent claims a method for tracking users’ activity on third-party domains and assigning corresponding advertisements to each user based on the data amassed from this surveillance. Facebook further claims a system comprising a processor for receiving communications from a third-party website, logging actions taken by the user on the third-party website, and correlating logged actions with one or more advertisements presented to users. Facebook’s motivation in filing this patent application is to “track activities of users of social network systems on other domains to, for example, analyze, target, or gauge the effectiveness of advertisements rendered in conjunction with social network systems.”

How it works

Facebook collaborates with third-party websites to share information and establish advertising agreements based on this information. For example, when a Facebook user makes a purchase on a third-party website, the third-party website may transmit a “conversion page,” such as a “thank you for your purchase” or “confirmation” page, to the user’s computer. The conversion page includes a conversion tracking tag that will transmit a message to Facebook informing them of the purchase, including in that message relevant information such as user ID, website address, product purchased and a timestamp indicating when the action was taken. 

This open exchange of personal information is not limited merely to purchases, however.  Particular embodiments described in the patent application will allow Facebook to track when its users become a fan of a product, email a link to a friend, install an application, visit a website, download or upload content, subscribe to a blog, register for an event or group, or donate to a charity. Facebook does not wish to be relegated to involvement only in its users’ virtual lives, however. The methods and processes detailed in the patent application also allow Facebook to track its users’ real-world activity, including real-world credit card purchases, GPS locations, TV viewing, flights, hotel stays and restaurant visits. This list, Facebook is quick to point out, is not meant to be exhaustive: “These examples are presented to illustrate some of the types of devices and actions that may be captured as actions by a user and communicated to the social network system. A limitless variety of other applications may be implemented to capture real-world actions associated with a particular user and send that information to the social network system” (emphasis added).  

What about privacy and security settings?

Facebook’s invention description makes clear that the social network does not intend to be stymied by privacy controls:

The third party website and/or the social network system determine whether the user is a user of the social network system. For example, the third party website may access a cookie on the user’s computer, where the cookie is associated with the social network system. Since the social network system and the third party website are on different domains, the user’s browser program may include security features that normally prevent a website from one domain from accessing content on other domains. To avoid this, the third party website may use nested iframes, where the third party website serves a web page that includes a nested iframe in the social network website’s domain, thereby allowing the nested iframe to access user information and send the information back to the third party website. . . . By using this technique, the third party website and the social network system can communicate about the user without sharing any of the user’s personal information and without requiring the user to log into the social network system.

Incidentally, sharing my spending, traveling, eating, television- and movie-watching, donating, reading, and myriad other habits sounds suspiciously akin to sharing “personal information.” Facebook users may take solace in the fact that they will retain some modicum of privacy: “The website may ignore certain user actions, such as those that have little or no significance to the purpose of the system, to avoid using memory and computing resources to track actions that are insignificant.” This privacy is based, of course, on the actions' inability to make Facebook or its collaborators any money.

How will Facebook use this wealth of information?

The patent application is directed to establishing an “action log” and to exploiting this detailed tracking system to “present advertisements to users that communicate information about, or take into account, actions taken by the user and by other users in the same network.” In some embodiments, certain actions taken by a user on third-party websites will trigger requests for ads from third-party advertisers directly, which then may return ads displayed in conjunction with the user’s current page. This could mean that buying a new blender online could trigger ads on your Facebook page for other household appliances from Williams-Sonoma or Bed Bath & Beyond. 

Facebook’s patent also envisions cross-referencing actions taken by other users in your network. For example, you might go online to buy movie tickets and be greeted with a message box stating that nine of your Facebook friends enjoyed “The Lion King 3D” and suggesting that you buy a ticket as well. Further, your online and real-world actions could appear on your Facebook friends’ newsfeeds, cleverly camouflaged as actual news: “One benefit of mixing the newsfeed stories and the social ads in a single list presented to a user is that there may be little or no differentiation between advertising and general information that a user would want to know. . . . it may be impossible for a user to determine whether an entry in the user’s newsfeed is a newsfeed story or a social ad.” 

The patent application includes an advertising model outlining the economic benefits such “rich data logs” will garner for participating third parties. The tracking system will allow Facebook to gauge quantitatively the effectiveness of selected advertisements and advertising methods displayed to users of the social networking system, as well as to develop, provide recommendations for or target particular ads to particular users. Facebook can then auction advertising space to interested companies on the basis of this calculation. “In one advertising model,” the patent application explains, “each advertiser can bid a certain amount of money for each instance that a user clicks on or takes some other action with respect to the ad whether the action is on or off the social network system or on the third-party website.” Thus, Facebook can predict, with high accuracy, the projected value of various advertisements on its own site, as well as on third parties’ websites.

What can we do to stop this invasion of privacy?

The patent application provides an out for those wishing to maintain a more private lifestyle. A confirmation message, appearing, for example, after the user has purchased a sweater from Banana Republic, will “inform the user of the story that the user’s friends may be provided via the social network system. The confirmation message may also allow the user to opt out of the feature to prevent the message from being shown to others.” Users can stop their friends from seeing their Internet usage; the patent application is silent as to whether users can stop Facebook and its innumerous collaborators from viewing the same. 

This patent application has not yet been approved by the USPTO. However, patent law allows applicants to utilize their invention up to one year prior to filing for a patent. Thus, Facebook users may already be experiencing a new level of infringement on their privacy. And Mark Zuckerberg might know you read this article. 

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