Apple Patents Lying to Those Who Are Spying


The CIA is gunning for Apple's security. Photo: Spy vs. Spy
The CIA is gunning for Apple's security. Photo: Spy vs. Spy


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 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.)

  • MrSarcy

    Much as I love Apple products, I am enough of a realist to know that Apple does not have a moral bone it its (corporate) body. (Neither do Facebook, Google et all.) It would sell a baby to a dingo if it could get away with it. So my best guess as to what they will be using this patent for is to stop others from doing this by claiming the patent. Also, I think I’m smart enough to keep my secrets, such as they are, a secret. And now I will continue to drool over that magnificent, unfixeable Macbook Pro from these magnificent bastards…

  • lwdesign1

    While this is interesting and a positive note, Apple already collects a lot of information on its iTunes purchasers. It knows exactly what apps, music and videos I’ve purchased and when. Its Genius Recommendations sees what I’m listening to and suggests other music I might be interested in. I don’t personally mind any of this, because I find it helpful rather than intrusive. After all these years, Apple is a company I can trust. I’ve never been given the runaround by Apple. They’ve repaired devices for free that were out of the warranty period. They once took too long on a laptop repair–and gave me a whole brand new laptop as an apology (brought in a 17″ 2006 MBPro, they gave me a 17″ 2010 MBPro with a 500GB hard drive, matte screen and 8GB of RAM when none of this was standard). Since 1989 I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the company, and their products just work.

  • Seraphiel

    While this is interesting and a positive note, Apple already collects a lot of information on its iTunes purchasers.

    If I purchase a product from a company I don’t mind that this particular company collects some data. What I do mind is the other companies lifting with it. Then I mean that when I buy a product from Sony that I don’t mind Sony having my information but I don’t want the different tracking companies, that follow my purchase to receive this information. So I use a tracking blocker for this now and the idea to just send these companies bogus information is in my point of view even better as it makes all their collected information useless for reliable statistics thus hopefully stopping these idiotic disrespectful practices. Yes I find tracking intrusive and disrespectful towards customers. One or two visitor counters or trackers should be enough. Not 12 like Cult of Mac is trying to track me with at time of writing.

  • phildunn

    The younger demographic is definitely on board with “I want to be known, because I want to save time online.” I think Apple’s better strategy would be to provide the superior “known” experience. Something like what the other comments mention – a cleaner, less fragmented understanding of personal data. That could mean proactively using counter-intelligence against more spammy data scraping/harvesting systems.

  • CharilaosMulder

    Apple products offer few clock cycles per buck compared to competitors, as some mindless fandroids might say. I think this is mostly because of the fact that Apple doesn’t get any revenue from stealing your privacy.

  • Felfac

    why do they need to have all this i don’t want somebody wierd advertising company knowing everything and giving me ads

  • cshotton

    I think this is the simple or naive interpretation. I don’t mean that in a bad way. What I mean is that many people take patents at their positive face value. I.e. “Apple is gonna use this patent to stick it to da man!” But one of the most important techniques in patent warfare is collecting patents on stuff that you are afraid others may use against YOU.

    So another completely plausible (and probably more likely) interpretation is that Apple intends to harvest the heck out of user data and wants to be able to sue anyone it finds polluting its data stream for infringing on its patent on polluting data streams.

    See how that works?

  • SantaBarbaraInfoTech

    However much I’d love to believe our Apple utopia will endure post Steve, I’m afraid the answer is undoubtedly, the latter…

  • MMO_Hobo

    There are 2 reasons to patent something. To make a thing. To prevent others from making a thing. Which is this I wonder.

  • ac1dra1n

    It seems that towards the bottom you have contradicted your self about how Google might try to foil Apples means of collecting data. You said that they don’t in the beginning of this article. Also, there is an option to turn that in. Doesn’t the option to rely information to Apple always come up when setting up an Apple device?

  • nolavabo

    Apple seems to be getting closer to Facebook and Twitter, while spurning Google. Is this the thermonuclear option that Steve Jobs was referring to? And if Google fights fire with fire, do we have Mutually Assured Destruction to worry about?

  • arisemprex

    well…apple doesnt need to make a social network…it already has with the actual iphone itself. people need a social device. Apple already won at that.

  • web20lawyer

    I think its a great idea. Rather than depend on websites and software developers to build privacy controls into website and mobile apps, give it to the consumer.

  • ReyesIvy1

    as Sylvia responded I cannot believe that a person able to profit $4067 in one month on the computer. did you look at this webpage(Click on menu Home more information)

  • MrSarcy

    My post and some others were flagged. Flagging is for cursing, Godwins, what have you. You don’t flag posts for not agreeing with you. I hope the dipshits who do so are flagged themselves by the mods.

  • Soundcloud Forwardslash GenthenaZero

    This is a control method, like everything else Apple patented. Siri collects your data, iCloud collects your data, iTunes collects your data, even does. Sure they may claim that they will not be used for identifiable purposes, but they are all tied to your Apple ID, and that is plenty of identification already.

    Apple could go either way and create a defence against this or simply restrict others from creating a defence against data mining in general. Either way, Apple’s data mining will be an exception to this rule, giving them a somewhat unfair advantage.

    Well, technically it’s not unfair, but I would trust a smaller company that did have such potential to be a huge data miner (tomorrow if they wanted to). At least then we would know that there would be nobody able to make their systems see through it by design.