Is Facebook using your computer camera to read your facial expressions and determine how you feel about what you see on your screen? Is it using your phone's microphone to eavesdrop on you and find out what television programs you watch? Is it tracking your phone's location in the middle of the night to find out where you live?
Maybe not, or at least not yet. But the company has applied for patents to do all these things, and many others, all of them intended to study your behavior and personality and even predict your future, in order to better serve Facebook's customers. You may think that's you, but it's actually Facebook's advertisers, which account for 99 percent of its revenue.
Sahil Chinoy, a graphics editor for The New York Times, recently reviewed hundreds of Facebook's patent applications and appropriately dubbed many of them "creepy." Here are four of the creepiest:
1. A patent for using your device's front facing camera to read your facial expressions and determine how you feel about what you see on the screen.
2. A patent for using your phone's microphone to eavesdrop on you, determining which television programs you're watching and whether the ads are muted. It would also use the electrical signals emitted by your television to identify programs.
3. A patent that would track your weekly routine. It might also use your phone's location in the middle of the night to try to determine where you live (or at least sleep).
4. A patent that would use your posts and messages--and credit card transactions--to predict your major life events, such as a birth, marriage, graduation, or death. Advertisers particularly value knowing when such events might occur soon.
Does all this make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand on end? Not to worry, says Facebook VP Allen Lo, head of intellectual property. "Most of the technology outlined in these patents has not been included in any of our products, and never will be," he told the Times in an email.
But, any way you look at it, that's not a comforting response. Applying for a patent isn't a quick or easy matter. It typically involves tens of thousands of dollars worth of attorney's fees. It's certainly true that companies sometimes patent a concept in anticipation that either they will be sued by a company using similar technology or will themselves initiate a lawsuit someday. But there's simply no reason for Facebook to go to the time and expense of patenting all these sophisticated and invasive methods of data collection unless it plans to use them or at least thinks it might use them someday. Whether it ever uses these precise technologies, the company clearly intends to gain ever more precise information about its members and nonmembers so as to sell that info to those who can make use of it, or help advertisers more perfectly target their ads.
Facebook has repeatedly said it gives users total control over the information they voluntarily share with the platform. When pressed, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted to Congress that the company gathers "shadow profiles" on non-Facebook users--but insisted that it is simply tracking publicly available data.
But what about data Facebook collects, or may collect in the future, by spying on users through their cameras or listening through their smartphone microphones? Will it ask people to opt in before it begins gathering information this way? It's hard to imagine even the most hard-core Facebook user giving permission for practices like these.
Can we trust Facebook not to do this stuff without asking permission first? Well, it didn't initially ask permission before it started tracking users' phone calls or their web-browsing activity. It didn't ask permission before it conducted a widespread and successful experiment to see if it could manipulate people's moods.
As always, with the giant social network, you're faced with an unappealing choice. Either delete your Facebook account and lose the convenience of communicating with and keeping up on all your relatives and friends. Or let the company go ahead and gather information that could include where you're sleeping, what you're watching on TV, whom you're in a relationship with, and maybe even when you might have a child.