These Facebook patents suggest things could get worse in 2019

On balance, 2019 hasn’t been a great year for Facebook – at least in terms of its reputation with the public. The Cambridge Analytica saga resulted in Mark Zuckerberg being hauled over the coals by Congress and the EU, its Portal smart screen made people uneasy, it suffered a giant data breach, and private emails showing the company’s ruthlessness were seized earlier this month.

But for those who find the privacy implications of the above alarming, 2019 could be worse, as new patents reveal Facebook is toying with new ways of tracking its users and predicting their movements.

As reported by Buzzfeed News, three patents have been uncovered, each with different ideas of predicting user location when offline. The first, entitled “Offline Trajectories” is way of calculating “transition probability based at least in part on previously logged location data associated with a plurality of users who were at the current location.”

In layman’s terms, that means it would guess where you’re going next based on where you’ve been as well as the location of other Facebook users. Why? So that even if you’re offline, Facebook content “may be prefetched so that the user may have access to content during the period where there is a lack of connectivity.”

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The next patent, catchily titled “Location Prediction Using Wireless Signals on Online Social Networks”, uses different methods for similar ends. It explains how the strength of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, network coverage and NFC signals give Facebook an idea of where you are and thus where you may go next.

The final patent is even more of a mouthful: “Predicting Locations and Movements of Users Based on Historical Locations for Users of an Online System.” This one covers how people tend to move between places to figure out common routes for groups. The purpose? It’s a familiar refrain: “advertising to users based on locations and for providing insights into the moments of users.”

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It’s important to remember that just because a company patents something, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re planning on implementing the design immediately – or indeed at all. Facebook’s statement to Buzzfeed News certainly reinforces this sentiment: “We often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patent applications — such as this one — should not be taken as an indication of future plans.” Indeed, two of the patents come from 2017, when Facebook’s thirst for user data appeared considerably less risky.

But while the patents don’t necessarily show Facebook’s plans, they do reveal a continued interest in tracking location for the benefit of its advertisers. That’s hardly surprising in a free product, but food for thought for users who value their privacy at a slightly higher price.

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