Verizon turns voyeur. A Peeping Tom watching me, watching you, watching us

One of the most outrageous attempts by any company or country anywhere (including North Korea, Iran and Stalinist Russia) to spy on private citizens has been made public in the US after the Patent and Trademark Office published a Verizon patent application that would see motion detectors, infrared cameras, microphones and other detection devices embedded in personal digital video recorders (DVRs) to target advertising at individuals. By Martyn Warwick.

More Big Brother stuff looms on the horizon. It may still be some way off but the time to start worrying is now. Verizon has filed a patent application for something it calls “Detection Zone”, a system that uses motion detectors, infrared cameras microphones and other surveillance devices embedded in personal digital video recorders (DVRs) to eavesdrop on the private conversations (including fixed line and mobile telephone calls) and actions of private individuals within their own homes and use that data to target advertising at them.

According to Verizon’s filing, anything happening within the range of the Detection Zone will be picked up, analysed and used to send ads “appropriate” to any given situation. For example, were the system to decide that raised voices and the sound of smashing crockery to be evidence of marital discord, it would send out ads for marriage guidance counseling. Fortunately it wouldn’t happen, there’d be an teapot put through the TV screen long before the ad arrived.

Verizon’s patent application is called “Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a User” and was actually filed more than a year and a half ago. The company kept very quiet about it but all was eventually revealed because under US law the Patent & Trademark Office has to publish details of all patent applications within 18 months of them being filed,

The patent application says, “If detection facility detects one or more words spoken by a user (e.g., while talking to another user within the same room or on the telephone), the advertising facility may utilize the one or more words spoken by the user to search for and/or select an advertisement associated with the one or more words.”

The system would also sense if a person is eating, exercising, eating, laughing, singing or playing a musical instrument and target ads based on activities and implied moods and emotional states. The system can also determine when there are pets in a room as well as inanimate objects such as furniture, pictures and ornaments.

But back to Verizon’s patent application: “If detection facility detects that a user is playing with a dog, advertising facility may select an advertisement associated with dogs (e.g., a dog food commercial, a flea treatment commercial, etc.).” Good luck with getting the goldfish to spend a bit more.

But never mind, you can advertise to them every five minutes and it’ll be an entirely new experience for them.

Verizon’s far from altruistic intent is to provide “the user with advertising content that is relevant to the user’s current situation and/or likely to be of interest to the user.” Thus if the sensor system detected by noises and movement that a couple might be getting a bit fruity with one another on the sofa in front of the TV in the lounge they would be targeted with ads for “a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, an advertisement for flowers or romantic movies.” Utterly sickening, utterly vile and utterly wrong.

And apart from the potential for such foul intrusion into a person’s sex life, the Detection Zone technology would also be able to work out if an individual is using a mobile device and then communicate with the laptop, tablet or smartphone to determine if the person is “browsing the Web, drafting an email, reviewing a document, reading an e-book, etc.” What’s more it could grab a sample of the content being access and pass it on up the line and across the ether.

The Verizon patent application says, “If detection facility detects that the user is holding a mobile device, advertising facility may be configured to communicate with the mobile device to direct the mobile device to present the selected advertisement. Accordingly, not only may the selected advertisement be specifically targeted to the user, but it may also be delivered right to the user’s hands.” Yeah, whether the user wants it or not.

You may think that this can’t get any worse, but it can. Consumers would also be bombarded with ads based on “one or more physical attributes” which means things like height, build, length of or absence of hair, facial features (ears, nose teeth, goitres, warts, zits), tone of voice and accent. Not only will the system recognise these it will also be able to tell if and what you are eating and drinking.

Beth Givens, the director of the Californa-based, not-for-profit Privacy Rights Clearing House commented. “Of all the privacy-intrusive technology developments that I’ve become aware of in recent years, this one is at the extreme end of the scale. One of the things that troubles me most about this patent, aside from the extraordinary privacy-invasiveness of it, is that there are engineers at Verizon sitting around thinking up such things. It’s quite obvious that for this to have gotten to the patent-filing stage, Verizon engineers have been allowed – even encouraged – to take privacy-intrusion to the max, all in the name of advertising dollars.”

In response a Verizon mouthpiece, having had the compulsory corporate irony-bypass and spin-doctoring so fast then he’s corkscrewing himself down to the earth’s core as we speak said, “Verizon has a well-established track record of respecting its customers’ privacy and protecting their personal information.”

Fortunately the US Patent Office has had the gumption to try to nip this one in the bud and has rejected the Verizon application. However the judgement is a “non-final Office action” meaning that the patent file has been sent back to Verizon for it “to reconsider”.

You couldn’t make this stuff up. Well, actually George Orwell did. The book is called 1984.

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