Facebook Patent Reveals Plan To Spy On Users With Computer And Phone Cameras For "Emotion Detection"

Tuesday, 31 July 2018 - 11:10AM
Military Tech
Tuesday, 31 July 2018 - 11:10AM
Facebook Patent Reveals Plan To Spy On Users With Computer And Phone Cameras For "Emotion Detection"
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Image Credit: Pixabay composite
A patent application filed by Facebook in 2015 reveals some of the spycraft behind the company's ongoing quest to mine user data and leverage it for profit. This particular technology, however, isn't just about monitoring what you click or like as you create a treasure trove of data for the company to gleefully do what they please with.

Instead, it eliminates the need for any conscious action at all on the part of the user by using emotional recognition technology to interpret facial and physical expressions of mood, affect, and emotional reaction and deliver "content" – the media industry's catch-all phrase for everything from banal advertisements for dog food and diapers to propaganda efforts launched by Russian Intelligence Services on American social media platforms in an effort to destabilize the country – calibrated for each of those emotions.

How could Facebook possibly see you? Easy: your phone or computer's camera. That electrical tape has to come off eventually.

The patent application, titled "Techniques for emotion detection and content delivery," begins with a faulty syllogism that illustrates the simplicity of thought reigning at Facebook. "Users of computing devices spend increasing amounts of time browsing streams of posts on social networks, news articles, video, audio, or other digital content," goes Facebook's reasoning. "The amount of information available to users is also increasing. Thus, a need exists for delivering content [to] a user that may be of current interest to them" and that a "user's interests may be determined based upon their current emotional state."

Before we explore the patent, let's examine the problems with what amounts to Facebook's statement of purpose for implementing this technology.

The first is that Facebook conflates content with information: with something intangible that nevertheless has perceived implicit value and utility. The second problem is that Facebook identifies a spurious need that is entirely self-serving: the delivery of additional content to users. This justification of surveillance as a consumer service is absolute bullshit and completely incompatible with American values of freedom.

Facebook's presentation of content is entirely innocuous, of course, blithely stating that it "may include, but is not limited to, social networking posts, photos, videos, audio, games, advertisements, or applications made available online or through an application store on a device." The application continues its justification, stating that "using information associating emotions with content, a content delivery system may deliver more content associated with happy emotions than sad emotions, for example." 

The application goes on to note that "Computing devices such as laptops, mobile phones, and tablets increasingly include at least one, and often more than one, imaging component, such as a digital camera. Some devices may include a front-facing camera that is positioned on the same side of the device as a display. Thus, during normal operation, a user may be looking towards the imaging component. However, current content delivery systems typically do not utilize passive imaging information. Thus, a need exists for a content delivery solution that takes advantage of available passive imaging data to provide content to a user with improved relevancy. (emphasis ours)" 

Once again, a faulty syllogism is at work here. Those last two sentences essentially say that because – at least as of 2015 – Facebook's content delivery systems don't access your camera for "passive imaging" (an innocuous way of saying "automatic recording"), a need exists for it. People need water. They need food. They need fresh air. They don't need a company to be able to access their electronic devices to gauge their facial expressions when they read that they're being spied on. 

The thoughtful inventor who authored this application noted that the imaging component "may comprise without limitation a mobile device, a personal digital assistant, a mobile computing device, a smart phone, a cellular telephone, a handset, a one-way pager, a two-way pager, a messaging device, a computer, a personal computer (PC), a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a notebook computer, a handheld computer, a tablet computer, or a wearable computing device such as a smartwatch." 

Regardless of whether you fall into the intellectually lazy, laissez-faire camp of those who assert that there's no point in trying to maintain one's personal privacy because of the multitude of surveillance and data collection/mining technologies at work or if you're among the small number of people who take issue with American companies that have implicated themselves in Russia's interference in the last presidential election by aiding their propaganda efforts through some ugly hybrid of stupidity, greed, and neglect, you probably don't see a need existing for anyone to access your camera so that AI can assess your emotional reactions via microexpressions, feed that data back into a server to be kept, analyzed, and possibly sold, and then regurgitated to you in the form of ads, family photos from people you went to high school with, or a video article about how a young billionaire is doing his best to fight "fake news."

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman warned that television, for all of its promise to create an enlightened and informed citizenry, was actually doing the opposite: that it was making people less discerning as the collective appetite for what was then called programming and is now called content, increased.

As television has given greater and greater ground to the Internet – and particularly social media – as the primary source of news, Postman's words ring even more alarmingly true. "Television," Postman wrote, "is altering the meaning of 'being informed' by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?" 

In Facebook's case, the answer appears to be simple: continue to profit from it by any means necessary.

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