You’ve heard the predictions. We’re quickly slouching toward a world in which your every move, every purchase, every act of “content consumption” will be meticulously and automatically monitored, tracked and captured. Algorithms will constantly profile you so advertisers can make their advertising specific to your location, preferences, personality, social group, income and education level and more.
Facebook’s future depends on this idea. This is one reason why Google launched Google+. This is why Microsoft launched Bing. This is why investors are bullish on location-based services like Foursquare. This is why Amazon.com created its own web browser.
Every major technology company, it seems, is scrambling to get into the user-data harvesting racket.
Everyone except Apple.
Why didn’t Apple buy Facebook or Twitter? Why didn’t Apple launch its own social network? What is Apple’s strategy for harvesting data about users?
I’ve been puzzled by these questions, and wondering out loud on this site exactly when and how Apple would reveal its strategy for competing on the personal-data collection battlefield.
But this week, something shocking happened that made me think: Maybe Apple isn’t going to get into the data-harvesting business at all. Maybe Apple is going to fight it!
The Best Patent I Have Ever Read
The US Patent and Trademark Office made public this week a newly-granted Apple patent. It’s called “Techniques to pollute electronic profiling.”
Apple didn’t invent this technology. It was probably invented at Novell. But, according to the patent document, Apple is an “assignee,” which means Apple has the exclusive legal right to use or license the technology.
The idea is to foil online data harvesting through misinformation. It’s a method for systematically lying to data-harvesting servers.
So let’s say you’re in California, and you use your Mac to visit Amazon and use your VISA card to buy the book *Animal Farm* by George Orwell.
Everybody wants this data. Google wants it. Amazon wants it. They can add this information to the mountain of information they already have on you.
Apple’s patent implies that these data harvesters would be lied to — for example, told that you’re in Kansas on a Linux PC using your AMEX (with a fake number) to buy the book “Cooking with Pooh.”
The method wouldn’t block data harvesters, but trick them.
And those lies would be consistent. The patent describes a method of created a complete, coherent, internally consistent fake identity that would be presented to the data harvesters.
Besides the idea itself, which is brilliant, the patent is a good read.
It’s packed with colorful language and strong opinions. For example, it refers to data-harvesters who collect personal information to be used later in advertising as “Little Brothers” and “eavesdroppers.”
It also points out that such a method could foil the “Big Brothers” (governments) as well as criminals harvesting your data for identity theft.
The patent is also disturbing in its basic assumptions.
The whole idea is based on the belief that it will be literally impossible to avoid having your data harvested in the future. Unless you live in a cabin in the woods like Ted Kaczynski and go completely off the grid, you will be tracked and detailed profiles about you will be constructed. Since there’s no way to stop the data harvesting, the best defense is to “pollute” the database with misinformation.
Why would Apple be interested in this?
Maybe Apple Plans to Beat ‘Em, Not Join ‘Em
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. But maybe Apple CAN beat ‘em.
If you’re using a Mac or an iOS device, or a Safari browser, Apple could theoretically “pollute” the data collected on you by other companies. They could do this in the background, without affecting your experience online.
It would also have a user-controllable toggle switch, enabling you to be your true self whenever you choose.
It sounds like Apple would be some kind of privacy hero by implementing this technology — making the Apple environment a kind of safe haven from rampant data collection on Android, Windows and other platforms.
This may end up being the case but isn’t necessarily so.
The patent points out that in order to “pollute” data, the true identity and the real information must be known by the system.
One scenario is that Apple harvests the real data for their own purposes, and “pollutes” the data collected by rivals, such as Google.
If that happened, you can be sure that Google would deploy its own data-pollution scheme, fouling the data collected while iOS or OS X users are on Google Search or Google+.
This is, after all, what happens in all war. Each side looks to extract true information (intelligence) and provide false information to the enemy (counter-intelligence).
Welcome to the future! Your personal information may become the battlefield upon which global tech giants will wage information warfare.
So which do you think it will be? Will Apple make the iOS and OS X platforms safe havens from personal data harvesting? Or will they harvest your data themselves, and pollute the data of other harvesters?
(Image courtesy of EC Comics and Time Warner.)