So an interesting thing just happened: a number of articles from various publications have come out claiming that Facebook has a patent that'll secretly turn on the microphones on users' mobile devices every time it hears a signal from a TV.
The spate of articles appears to have begun when Metro UK picked up on the story, saying "Facebook wants to hide secret inaudible messages in TV ads that can force your phone to record audio."
Unfortunately, The Verge caught wind of these articles and exposed their wrongful interpretations of the patent, which was probably the result of their inability to read patents properly.
The Thing About Reading Patents Properly
The Verge claims all headlines about that Facebook story are wrong. Facebook did not apply for a patent on surreptitiously turning on microphones when a hidden signal starts playing on users' TVs. How did The Verge's Nilay Patel know that? Well, he simply read the patent, and it didn't even have the words "phone" or "microphone" in them at all.
Patel goes on to explain that a patent is made up of several parts, but the "claims" section is the only one that truly matters when it comes to interpretation. The claims section contains the subject matter of the patent, and anyone skipping that or focusing on a section other than claims will end up misconstruing the contents of a patent.
Is Facebook Planning To Spy On People?
The patent in question is available to read online. It's loaded with jargon and highly technical descriptions, but the gist of it illustrates a system that receives a user ID and an audio fingerprint, matches it to some content, tries to determine if that content was played for a set period, then cross-references a counter to determine whether that content has been played a certain number of times, as Nilay explains.
Reading the patent, it's hard not to assume Facebook is developing a system that can paint a picture of users' ad-watching habits, but even still, that wouldn't be radically different from existing smart speakers, which can listen to triggers, record audio, and send them to servers for processing. It should be noted that Facebook is rumored to be working on its own smart speaker, which apparently should have been released by now if not for the pushback the company received after the whole Cambridge Analytica fiasco.
It's also worth noting that patents aren't always indicative that a company will push through with its ideas. Often, they're used as preemptive legal protections in case another company tries to copy or use assets without due permission. What's more, Facebook says it doesn't plan on using the technology described in the patent anyway. It was only filed "to prevent aggression from other companies," according to Facebook's Allen Lo.