Google granted creepy eavesdropping patent for keyword-based ads

March 23, 2012
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Google is watching you. So is everyone else, of course, and it's not like Google is trying to hide the fact - their controversial new privacy policy was plastered over every single web service for the better part of a month. But the USPTO has just granted them a patent on a piece of technology that actually listens to you - and I don't mean in the helpful Voice Actions sort of way. United States Patent 8,138,930 lays the groundwork for a system that actually listens for keywords in phone conversations and stores the triggers in a database, to serve contextual advertisements later.

There's no two ways about it: that's creepy. Although technically no better or worse than using your search history as a template for targeted advertising, the idea of Google literally listening to phone or VOIP conversations is downright unsettling, even if it is just through a computer proxy. The patent covers "environmental conditions" detected by any of a smartphone's sensors, including location, temperature, humidity, or physical movement. Just as an example, an engineer could write a set of parameters looking for the keywords "football game" in conjunction with rapid shifts in a person's speed and direction to target people playing a game of pick-up, then serve an ad for Jamba Juice when they search for a drink.

Other sections of the patent point towards contextual advertising beyond a mobile device, including nearby ad vectors. In the football game example above, a digital billboard might be alerted to particular users and begin flashing a Jamba Juice ad with directions, not waiting for the user to activate his or her phone. While some of the more passive methods of tracking in the patent are much less disturbing than the voice keywords, it's all a considerable step above what Google's already doing with search and email.

Google's been under some pretty intense privacy scrutiny in the last year or two, and it's at a head at the moment. To be blunt, they'd be hard pressed to implement a system like the one described in the patent in the current climate. The documentation goes back to 2005, so someone's been working on it for quite a while, but there's no evidence that a voice or sensor tracking system is going in to effect any time soon.

[via SlashGear]


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  • Aze

    Hopefully they just patented it to prevent others from using such technology. Hey, you never know, maybe Google really isn’t evil ;-)

  • Guest

    Oh my God!   Google will listen to my grocery list!!   They will listen when I call the cleaners!!!  They heard me call my brother about his car!!!!  They even listened to my call to the pet shop!  What is this horrible world coming to????

    News flash:  I *WOULD* rather watch 2000 commercials for products I need/want/use… than to watch 2000 that I found useless and pointless.

    • Nubux

      Oh my God!  Google will listen to my bank account number!  They will listen when I call my investment company!!!  They heard me call my brother about his recent purchase at a fertilizer / chemical store (and we’ll promptly be put on a watch list for purchasing bomb making supplies)!!!  They even listened to my call to call my pot dealer!

      News flash:  I would rather not watch ANY commercials for products I need/want/use…  while using a product or service that I already PAY for.    

      Perhaps you never use your phone to make the above types of phone calls, or any private / personal calls at all.  Frankly, I’m paying for a phone service. I’m paying for a device.  Is it really necessary for them to make more money off of me by sending me innocent advertisements?  I hate to tell you this, but Google’s motivation behind sending you custom advertisements, isn’t because they’re trying to do you a favor.

      • AnotherGuest

        Oh shut up. Taking out a patent doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything. Besides Google has no ads on Android per se. It only has ads in cerain google apps. So quit with the FUD.

  • Funsucker

    The fact is that just because they now have a patent, doesn’t mean that they didn’t already have the capability or were not using it already. The patent also does not grant them the right to do it, all the patent does is give them the right to stop competitors from doing it. Make enough noise and your lawmakers may even take the right away from Google to use this as a means of data mining your life.