Two months ago, Mark Zuckerberg told Congress that Facebook doesn’t eavesdrop on its users. But a newly published application shows the company has applied to patent a system that would allow it to listen to what its users are watching on TV.
In April, the Facebook CEO denied the persistent rumors that it listens to people via their phones.
“Senator, let me get clear on this, you’re talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what’s going on on your microphone and use that for ads,” Zuckerberg said in response to a question from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, during the Senate committees hearing over Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal. “To be clear, we do allow people to take videos on their devices and share those, and videos have audio, so we do while you’re taking a video, record that and use that to make the service better by making sure your videos have audio. But I think that is pretty clear.”
But Facebook in a 2016 patent application published this month described technology that would allow the company to use a person’s smartphone microphone to pick up ambient audio and report back to Facebook about what each person in a household is watching, based on the sounds their devices pick up. Where that relates to the “conspiracy theory”: The system could pick up other noise in the background, such as people’s conversations.
The 19-page patent application is filled with details about how the system would work, including that it would appear to be non-intrusive in that those whose viewing habits are being tracked wouldn’t notice it. What it all boils down to is the why: All the better to target you with ads and content.
So is Facebook about to add this tool to its omniscience arsenal? Many companies’ patent applications never see the light of day, and that’s what the company is saying in this case.
“It is common practice to file patents to prevent aggression from other companies,” Facebook’s head of intellectual property, Allen Lo, told this publication in a statement. “The technology in this patent has not been included in any of our products, and never will be.”