A newly discovered patent ( Patent #: US20150242679 ), filed on behalf of the social media monolith, Facebook, is disturbing, to say the least — and, grounds for the immediate covering of your webcam or smartphone camera.
The patent, titled, Techniques for Emotion Detection and Content Delivery, explains how the device’s camera will be used to view the user’s face to determine their mental state: ie sad, happy, angry, etc. When Facebook identifies your mental state, they will use it to keep you on the site longer.
Facebook would analyze the images of your face and determine how or what to show you next to keep you engaged.
For example, if you smiled at a meme a friend posted, Facebook would recognize this via your camera and it would work to show you more memes related to that one.
This patent, quite literally, puts the ‘face’ in Facebook.
It’s not just facial expressions either; Facebook wants you to continuously stare at their platform as well. According to their examples in the patent application, if you were viewing videos of a kitten and looked away, Facebook would take note and stop showing you videos that don’t keep you staring directly at the screen.
The secret recording of your face also helps Facebook to directly target ads that fit your desires. If you watched an ad for scotch, Facebook would know you didn’t look away and it would then target you for more ads of that nature.
The patent was submitted in February of 2014 and published on November of 24, 2015. However, it was just granted on May 25, and discovered by the group CB Insights.
As CB Insights reports, aside from spying on you through your camera and recording your face, the algorithm will monitor an entire slew of input and interaction methods to keep you on the platform.
This patent would automatically add emotional information to text messages, predicting the user’s emotion based on methods of keyboard input. The visual format of the text message would adapt in real time based on the user’s predicted emotion. As the patent notes (and as many people have likely experienced), it can be hard to convey mood and intended meaning in a text-only message; this system would aim to reduce misunderstandings.
The system could pick up data from the keyboard, mouse, touch pad, touch screen, or other input devices, and the patent mentions predicting emotion based on relative typing speed, how hard the keys are pressed, movement (using the phone’s accelerometer), location, and other factors.
Naturally, Facebook is being as ambiguous as they can over news of the patent, claiming they may or may not use it.
“We often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patents should not be taken as an indication of future plans,” said a Facebook spokesperson.
However, as the Independent reports, the document raises yet more concern about a company that, in 2014, was found to have secretly manipulated hundreds of thousands of users’ News Feeds as part of an experiment to work out whether it could affect people’s emotions.
The company later admitted that it “failed to communicate clearly why and how we did it.”
What’s more, the world was shocked last year when an image of Mark Zuckerberg surfaced which showed the social media CEO using tape to cover his webcam and microphone. Zuckerberg clearly knows everything his company does and he’s taking no chances.
While there is no indication this secret facial spying has gone live yet, it is highly unlikely that Facebook users would even be notified of its activation. Given the already Orwellian nature of Facebook’s Terms of Service and Permissions for using their app or platform, you’ve likely already agreed to allow them to watch you in bed as you scroll through your newsfeed.
Just to use the Facebook platform, users have to agree to allow the social media giant access to their camera and microphone — in the background — without their consent.
Once these permissions were released several years ago, users began to notice advertisements based on sounds or images from nearby that did not take place on Facebook, or even on the device.
The feature has been available for a couple of years, as a 2016 Independent article noted, but recent warnings from Kelli Burns, mass communication professor at the University of South Florida, have drawn attention to it.
Professor Burns has said that the tool appears to be using the audio it gathers not simply to help out users, but might be doing so to listen in to discussions and serve them with relevant advertising. She says that to test the feature, she discussed certain topics around the phone and then found that the site appeared to show relevant ads.
Although Facebook explicitly denies doing such a thing, the mass of claims by those who’ve witnessed it first hand says otherwise.
Now for the good news.
The easiest way to stop Facebook from spying on you is to stop using it. However, that is not an option for all folks. Aside from the obvious taping of your camera and microphone, you can disable these functions within the Facebook app itself.
For the iPhone:
- Go into your “Settings” app and scroll down until you find the Facebook app, tap it open.
- Under “Facebook” tap on “Settings” and you’ll see a list labeled “Allow Facebook to Access.” The microphone and camera will both be under this list.
- Simply tap on the toggles to disable or enable any of the features you think violate your privacy (location, camera, microphone).
For an Android phone:
- Go into your settings and tap on “Applications” then “Application Manager.”
- Once in “Application Manager,” look for the Facebook app and tap on “More” (top right corner).
- You’ll now see a list of options, tap on “Permissions.”
- Under “Permissions” you’ll have the option to disable the microphone (simply tap on it) and other features like the camera.
You can do the same with any other app you think is eavesdropping into your conversations.