You may have seen the ads that Facebook has been running on TV in a full-court press to apologize for abusing users privacy. They’re embarrassing. And, it turns out, they may be a sign of things to come. Based on a recently published patent application, Facebook could one day use ads on television to further violate your privacy once you’ve forgotten about all those other times.

First spotted by Metro, the patent is titled “broadcast content view analysis based on ambient audio recording.” (PDF) It describes a system in which an “ambient audio fingerprint or signature” that’s inaudible to the human ear could be embedded in broadcast content like a TV ad. When a hypothetical user is watching this ad, the audio fingerprint could trigger their smartphone or another device to turn on its microphone, begin recording audio and transmit data about it to Facebook.

Diagram of soundwave containing signal, triggering device, and recording ambient audio.
Image: USPTO

Everything in the patent is written in legalese and is a bit vague about what happens to the audio data. One example scenario imagines that various ambient audio would be eliminated and the content playing on the broadcast would be identified. Data would be collected about the user’s proximity to the audio. Then, the identifying information, time, and identity of the Facebook user would be sent to the social media company for further processing.

In addition to all the data users voluntarily give up, and the incidental data it collects through techniques like browser fingerprinting, Facebook would use this audio information to figure out which ads are most effective. For example, if a user walked away from the TV or changed the channel as soon as the ad began to play, it might consider the ad ineffective or on a subject the user doesn’t find interesting. If the user stays where they are and the audio is loud and clear, Facebook could compare that seeming effective ad with your other data to make better suggestions for its advertising clients.

An example of a broadcasting device communicating with the network and identifying various users in a household.
Image: USPTO

Yes, this is creepy as hell and feels like someone trying to make a patent for a peephole on a nondescript painting

Source: Facebook Patent Imagines Triggering Your Phone’s Mic When a Hidden Signal Plays on TV