REPORT: Facebook Patenting Creepy Technology to Use “Off” Cameras to Watch You

June 14, 2017

The social media giant Facebook is always searching for fresh ideas to drive content, clicks, and revenue. The newest answer to that conundrum is augmenting feeds with emotional data.

Facebook has patents that allow it to use cameras on phones, tablets, and laptops, to view a member’s face to estimate their emotional state. The emotional data is pushed into algorithms to drive targeted content to their members.

Facebook’s newest tool: The emotionally augmented news feed 

Facebook is using data from its users to accurately measure the emotional condition of any person on the site. Every action you take on Facebook builds into an overall profile of you.

“Likes” provided the initial wave of data. Facebook could see what moved users to interact. “Reactions” were the next data tool.

Reactions allowed Facebook to have the user give an emotional response to all news feed posts. This data enabled Facebook to judge which content is better and even recommend what messages you should send to friends.

The next step, according to patents filed by Facebook, is to use passive data acquired from Facebook-linked cameras to calculate the emotional state of the user. That data would then be used to suggest content to the user, as CB Insights, the firm that brought the patent to light, explains:

This patent proposes capturing images of the user through smartphone or laptop cameras, even when the user is not actively using the camera. By visually tracking a user’s facial expression, Facebook aims to monitor the user’s emotional reactions to different types of content.

To monitor the user, Facebook proposes using “passive imaging data,” or visual data captured automatically through a laptop or phone’s front-facing camera. The user often faces this camera without thinking about it, while using the phone or laptop normally, and Facebook hopes to start leveraging this imaging data.

Facebook would then have the data stored on their servers to use for content delivery, apps, and third-party developers. The data would even be used to suggest messages to friends.

Facebook argues it needs the data to cut through the social media clutter in the patent application:

… [A] need exists for delivering content a user that may be of current interest to them. For example, a user’s interests may be determined based upon their current emotional state. 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.

Facebook seeks a leg up on the competition by building a complete profile of every user and storing it on their servers. Not surprisingly, this comes with many risks.

The ethical, legal, and privacy risks of Facebook’s new spying tools

The primary concern everyone has about this intrusive technology is the invasion of privacy without one’s knowledge. Facebook isn’t immune to data breaches.

In 2013, Facebook admitted after much stalling, that six million users had their private data exposed in a year-long data breach. In the tech world, it’s not a matter of “If” your data will be hacked, it’s a matter of “When.”

If users had their emotional and private data stolen, it would open them up to blackmail and personal embarrassment. People prone to depression would be particularly at risk of having their sensitive data given to the world.

Ethically, even though Facebook says they abide by their terms and conditions, most users would call passive camera use tantamount to spying. And even though Facebook isn’t the only company using passive hardware, see Amazon’s Echo, that’s not a comfort to most consumers.

Legally, emotional data would offer tantalizing evidence for courts. Lawyers could ask for Facebook’s emotional gauge of a person when they post potentially damaging content. Courts could then use the emotional data to establish the intent of a person when they committed an act.

Divorce and family courts would have a field day using the psychological states of spouses during divorce and custody proceedings. Prosecutors could use the emotional data to show changes in attitude or intent of a defendant.

How far is too far under the Fourth Amendment? We simply don’t know.

We’ve already seen shades of this with GPS use. The Supreme Court had to step in and rule the police putting GPS trackers on alleged defendants amounted to an unconstitutional search under the Constitution.

The Court will have to decide on the use of any big data information, as well as the use of emotional data gathered by passive cameras. Facebook’s plans raise numerous legal and ethical challenges.

And if you doubt this is a problem, know the following: Both Mark Zuckerberg and the FBI actively shield their cameras out of concern. If the founder of Facebook and the FBI have concerns, so should you.

What are the best ways to protect yourself? 

The best way to protect yourself on a laptop, tablet or phone is to cover it. Wired recommends using either a sticker or gaffer tape. The problem with using something like a sticky note is that it can lose adhesive and fall off.

If stickers or tape is impractical, you can buy a C-Slide that slides over and covers your camera. There’s a solution for every situation, and very simple steps can help protect your sensitive data.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.