Patent to Foil Behavioral Trackers
Behavioral tracking on the internet is a widely recognized problem. A 2009 article in the New York Times cites that two-thirds of Americans object in some way to online tracking. Despite that public sentiment, there are few regulations and rules outside of some efforts in the US and Europe to prevent this practice. And while there are a myriad of sophisticated tools users can install that can help prevent tracking, some trackers are even more sophisticated. Using techniques such as browser fingerprinting these operations can subvert many of these tools.
Gary Kovacs, CEO of Mozilla, gave an excellent TED talk on the subject back in May called Tracking the Trackers. In this presentation he mentions an analogy that highlights the heart of the issue: "Imagine in the physical world if somebody followed our children around with a camera and a notebook and recorded their every movement."
As a parent that's a creepy thought, although I do recognize it as a somewhat hyperbolic analog to the digital equivalent. However, in his closing statements I think he sums up the current collective thinking on the topic: "Privacy is not an option, and it shouldn't be the price we accept for just getting on the Internet."
I recalled that presentation today when I came across a patent filing by Apple. Stephen Carter of Apple filed a patent for impersonating users online in order to fill the trackers' databases with junk information. From the patent:
Techniques to pollute electronic profiling are provided. A cloned identity is created for a principal. Areas of interest are assigned to the cloned identity, where a number of the areas of interest are divergent from true interests of the principal. One or more actions are automatically processed in response to the assigned areas of interest. The actions appear to network eavesdroppers to be associated with the principal and not with the cloned identity.
It's a clever approach but I'm not sure how I feel about it. It violates that old saying, "two wrongs don't make a right" and frankly it seems kind of childish. And while it doesn't seem that difficult technically to implement, it could be politically dangerous. It would be sure to anger advertisers since the value of what they can track will be diminished and they have lots of lobbying power. And when the lobbyists are deployed, politicians start to care, and then all bets are off. A legislative solution would be sure to make no one happy.
Of course this patent was likely filed "just because" as many patents are these days (which is a problem in and of itself) and isn't likely to be part of any larger plan by Apple, but it certainly is food for thought. When this kind of solution is elevated to the level of a patent, it highlights the lack of our ability to make choices on what these trackers are collecting.