Brion Raffoul’s Patent Spotlight Part 6: Facebook, Patents, and Data Collection

By Joshua Proud and Art Brion

The use of social media continues to grow at a rapid rate.  There are currently more than three and a half (3.5) billion social media users worldwide and this represents nearly half of the entire global population!  While beginning as entertainment, social media now plays a central role in society and has been integrated into many aspects of our daily lives.  Whether you are browsing LinkedIn™ to apply for your next job, swiping on Tinder™ to find your significant other, or posting on Facebook™ to participate in a social justice movement, there is no question about the profound impact of social media on our lives.

Facebook has dominated the social media scene for well over a decade and now has a market capitalization of over 700 billion USD, with two point six (2.6) billion monthly active users.  As Facebook continues to grow, so too does their intellectual property (IP) portfolio.  In 2019, the social media titan filed over nine hundred (900) patent applications — a year over year increase in filings of over sixty percent (60%).  Not only does this indicate the degree of importance Facebook attributes to IP assets, but the subject matter of these applications gives an idea of how new technology may be integrated with social media in the future.  In Part 6 of Brion Raffoul’s Patent Spotlight Series, we highlight unique and interesting social-media-related patents and applications owned by Facebook.

The massive Facebook user base presents an unprecedented advertising opportunity and the company has recognized this.  In 2018, advertising accounted for almost 99% of Facebook’s revenue. The cost of advertising on Facebook is based on the number of clicks an advertisement receives, as well as on whether those who click on the advertisement follow through with purchases.  As such, much of Facebook’s IP is focused on learning more about its users.  Deeper knowledge of their user base allows Facebook to effectively target certain users with advertising that is more relevant.

Is Facebook Trying to Guess Your Next Steps?

The feeling among Facebook users that Facebook tracks their every move is not new.  And, according to US Patent Publication 2018/0352383, Facebook has taken location tracking to another level.  Described in the patent are methods to predict where a user might be headed in the future.  The publication discloses determining the current location of a user and analyzing both previous locations and meta data associated with the user, as well as others user related data points.  The analysis is then used to make a prediction as to whether the user, on a mobile device, may transition to a specific geographic location.  If the prediction is that a user may transition to a location with poor wireless connectivity, news feed and advertising content related to that location may be sent to the user’s device for caching before the user arrives at the location with poor wireless connectivity.   As an example, if a user regularly goes to a specific gym that has bad wireless data connectivity, Facebook’s system may pre-load that user’s news feed items (along with generated advertisements for locations near that gym) before wireless reception is lost.

Is Facebook Trying to Predict When You Might Die?

If guessing the future location of their users isn’t enough, Facebook has also contemplated predicting when their users might die!  Although abandoned, US Patent Publication 2012/0016817 described a system to predict a ‘life change event’ associated with a user of the social networking platform.  To highlight a few, these life change events might include marriage, a birthday, a new job, the birth of a child, school graduation, and even the user’s own death!  The system uses a machine learning model that is trained to use communication data, social network action data, associated meta data, and user data about previous life change events to make predictions related to current users.  Life change events associated with a user may then be used to target advertising more effectively.  As an example, if the system determines that a user is having a child, targeted advertisements relating to babies, such as for baby clothes and nursery items, may be presented to that user.

Facebook May Be Listening in While You Watch…

You might think you can escape Facebook’s reach by putting down your phone and watching your favourite television show or sports game–but you might not be able to!   US Patent Publication 2018/0167677 describes a system that listens to and records ambient audio from a broadcasting device (e.g., a television) in order to identify an individual listening to or watching specific broadcasted content.  In one scenario, an advertisement could include a high-pitched inaudible noise that is recorded by the user’s mobile device to identify the advertisement being broadcast and watched by the user.  After the tone is recognized and the advertisement has been identified, the advertisement related data generated could then be associated with the user’s profile.  The user’s profile can then be mined in order to collect personalized demographic information relating to the specific consumers that are viewing the specific advertisement that was broadcast.  This data could then be sold to large marketing companies who can then learn more about those receiving the advertising and to, thereby, allow for better targeted advertising.

Taking Personally Targeted Advertising to a New Level

And, to demonstrate the capability of not just Facebook but of its subsidiaries, what if Facebook could determine products that you may be interested in purchasing based on photos that you upload?  Since Facebook owns Instagram™, which is a photo and video sharing social network with over one billion active monthly users, this idea might sound quite interesting to Facebook.  Described in US Patent 9,135,631 is a system that applies computer image algorithms to detect objects in user-uploaded photos and videos.  The technology sifts through your photographs and videos and recognizes products or brands that are in your photos or videos and that you may be interested in.  This data can then be sold to those who sell the products or brands found in your photos or videos.   As an example, if one of your posted pictures has you holding a can of Coca-Cola, the system may infer that you enjoy Coca-Cola related soft drinks and may then show you advertisements for other Coca-Cola products.

From all of the above examples, it should be clear that, given Facebook’s interest in the field, digital advertising is an enormous market. In 2020, digital advertising spending is estimated to top three hundred and fifty (350) billion USD.  With almost half of the world’s population already online, our data–in all of its incarnations, whether that is personal, engagement, behavioral, or attitudinal data–is being collected. This collected data is sold to marketing companies to enable them to deliver advertisements tailored to what our data suggests as our interests.  Facebook has recognized this and has moved to own how that data is explicitly or implicitly collected.  While Facebook has said that not all of the technology disclosed in their patent filings will be implemented, it would be a safe bet that whichever data gathering technology is implemented on the their platform will be owned by Facebook.  This leads to the inescapable conclusion: while Facebook will not own its users, and while ownership of the data generated by those users is questionable, Facebook will own the IP around the collection of that data.  And, finally, it should be clear that Facebook’s IP portfolio on data collection technology will be a key component of the company’s value and of its future status as a key player in the social media space.