Verizon 'Big Brother' Patent Filing Lights Up the Web

By Peter Bernstein December 07, 2012

For those of you who thought the only things that can go viral on the Internet were videos of animals doing clever things, humans doing stupid ones, the social media swirl around political events, social movements, sports figures and pop culture celebrity movements, guess again. It turns out if you file a patent that seems a little too creepy/scary, that can go viral as well. Proof comes in the form of United States Patent Application Number 20120304206. It was filed November 6, 2012 by Verizon with the description, “Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a User.”  It became an Internet rocket when stories appeared about it yesterday, and with the media being what it is, TV stations around the U.S. have jumped on the bandwagon as well.

Why is everyone so agitated? 

Cutting to the chase and sparing you having to read what is pretty dry language on a clearly disturbing development to many, what Verizon is asking to have patented is the ultimate realization of the ability to not just watch you while you are watching television, but to be able—through things like voice, facial and gesture recognition—to give advertisers lots of bio feedback to better target their marketing to you.   

Civil libertarians and others jumped quickly to call this “big brotherism” to the extreme. And, while Verizon has not said what if anything it would do if granted the patent, what has really stirred the juices is that the patent itself paints a somewhat horrifying scenario where using a variety of methods including infrared sensors, cameras, and microphones – that it would track consumers’ moods and actions in order to tailor ads to them.

Advertisers no doubt will be delighted by drawing ever closer to the ideal “market of one” marketing vision futurists Alvin Toffler painted decades ago. Others have rightfully been apoplectic not just regarding the mere vision of being watched, possibly without your permission since the rewards of doing so are likely to out-weigh the risks, but also the mention of the possibility of linking smartphones and other devices to a “detection facility.”

One thing of interest in the patent is its description of the problem that is being solved. To the authors, it seems unfortunate that advertisers currently do not have the ability to have more contextual information about what we are doing when we are supposedly “glued to our televisions.” Research in the past has shown that in many homes, TV is in fact for the most part background noise for a host of other activities. Recent research says that people use DVRs to skip ads, and a recent Nielson study says we also like to Tweet. This is disturbing to advertisers who hate to waste money on things that are not being viewed, or viewed often enough.

This lack of knowing more about what we are doing leads to two interesting questions right off the bat:

  • Why would I want them to know?
  • If I did give permission, would they pay me for the privilege?

We shall see if, when and how this gets answered. 

 Others in their articles on the subject have pointed out the obvious. Yes, phones, tablets, PCs and even some TVs have cameras. Gaming consoles do too and motion detectors, and apps with voice recognition, facial and gesture recognition abound. Add to that the ability to use “big data” to create better and better user profiles. In fact, back in 2010 Microsoft had pretty much this idea when it said it would like to target ads for users of its Kinect system. It should be noted that Microsoft thought better of this when the press questioned what good would come of the Kinect camera being used for monitoring. This Verizon application for what could be an application goes even farther. In a word, yikes!

I also thought it was a hoot to see the speculation that the reason Verizon is doing this is actually a “pre-emptive strike” to block Apple or Google from doing this. I guess the term “licensing” (heaven forbid) in our litigious tech world is now a dirty word.

 The good news on this is that patent grants take years. The bad news is this is an idea where there are no real barriers to entry and the technology exits, i.e., expect this to be offered by someone long before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) gets around to it.

That brings me back to that second question above. In recognition that this is likely to be inevitable, and Nielson should be concerned about the disintermediation of its business and therefore could be a first mover here, if you are going to watch me I want the default to be that I give you permission and I want to get paid. There should be a cost to doing business as a voyeur. 

And remember, and excuse me because I have used this link before, as the mega hit from Hall and Oates says, “Private eyes are watching you, they see your every move…” 

 

One more thing. On a much lighter note, I think, check out Verizon’s patent number 8,325,063, “Systems and methods for recording parking space information.”   Now, that is something that at least is not likely to go viral. 




Edited by Jamie Epstein
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