Facebook is working on software that orders users’ smartphones to record audio when triggered by an inaudible sound hidden in TV ads. In a patent application published on June 14, Facebook’s research division revealed a system which lets it secretly tell people’s mobile phones to capture “ambient audio.”
The patent application is called “broadcast content view analysis based on ambient audio recording,” and it’s creepy as all hell.
The system allows Facebook to conceal a digital sound in the audio of television ads. This sound is unhearable to human ears, but the Facebook software can hear it and it will send a message to your smartphone to begin recording.
The phone will record audio that Facebook describes as “distinct and subtle sounds of a particular location created by the environment of the location, such as machinery noise, the sound of distant human movement and speech, creaks from thermal contraction, and air conditioning and plumbing noises in a household.” Notice how cleverly tucked away “speech” is in the middle of that flowery description of “ambient noise.”
Of course, Facebook only designed this system to monitor what people watch on their “broadcasting device” so their Facebook feed can then be chock full of targeted ads. It gives their clients the best possible billboard for campaigns and lets them know who is really tuning into their ads.
The more muffled the “ambient noise” the more likely the user has ditched the TV ad and gone to grab a beer. That’s all this system does. There is no ethical questions to be asked about advertisers being let into users’ homes uninvited to record private conversations. That’s an inconsequential bi-product of a Facebook feed full of shiny coveted products.
Facebook has filed thousands of patent applications since it went public in 2012 and they reveal that the company has considered tracking almost every aspect of users’ lives: where you are, who you spend time with, whether you’re in a romantic relationship, which brands and politicians you’re talking about. It has even attempted to patent a method for predicting when your friends will die.