Facebook has just been granted a series of patents in the US which, if put into effect, would enable the company to use the camera on your computer, tablet or smartphone to monitor and record your facial expressions while you’re on the site.
A patent is essentially a legal protection over a new innovation which has an “inventive step”. Three of Facebook’s patents were filed some time ago with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and were all granted in recent weeks. This gives Facebook legal protection against laws on recording people.
Adding emotion to your texts
The first patent uses a predictive system to add emotional information to text messages.
Typing speed, movement, location and other factors will predict emotion and change the font text and size of the message, as well as add an emoji or two that suit the moment.
Gauging your reaction to tailor content
The second patent uses the camera on your device to determine your state of mind; whether you are sad, happy, angry, etc.
The technology then uses this information to provide content which increases the chance of keeping you on the site longer.
For example, if you smile or laugh at something a friend posted, the camera will record this, and the technology behind the scenes will determine your reaction and choose similar content for your feed to keep you active and engaged.
While many of us already voluntarily engage by liking or ‘reacting’ to posts in our news feed, the technology goes a step further by pre-determining your reaction before you actually provide it.
It will also know when you look away, when you scowl or get angry, when you are engrossed in something or bored by it, and content – especially advertising – will be tailored to appeal to what you have shown interest in.
The third patent will enable Facebook to turn your face into an emoji in real time, capturing your exact expression.
This seems relatively harmless on the surface, similar to taking a selfie and posting it, and could be a lot of fun. But it’s also the perfect example of how we can easily get hooked on new technology and then think about the ramifications later.
At this stage, Facebook is playing down the patents, saying the company often safeguards ideas and initiatives via patent, and may never even use them.
But it’s not the first time the company has been accused of questionable tactics. A few years ago, Facebook suffered a user backlash after releasing details of a secret experiment involving almost 700,000 users, but only after the experiment was over.
Over time, Facebook manipulated information posted on several hundred thousand users’ home pages and found it could make people feel more positive or negative through a process called “emotional contagion”.
Terms and Conditions
At the time, there were concerns Facebook may have breached ethical and legal guidelines by not informing users of the experiment, which was conducted in 2012.
But Facebook claimed that altering the news feeds was “consistent with Facebook’s data use policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research”.
And that’s the crux of the issue right there – unknowingly consenting to what would otherwise constitute a privacy breach through accepting terms and conditions.
How many of us actually read this ‘fine print’ before we create an account anyway?
The good news is that you do have some control. You can disable the camera and the microphone functions within the Facebook app itself. Or do as Mark Zuckerberg does, put tape over yours.
In a world where cyber-crime and ‘big brother’ technologies are becoming increasingly prolific, it pays to be a little cautious and protect your privacy.