Facebook Files Patent To Calculate Your Location - In The Future

Facebook has filed several patent applications for technology with the USPTO which would use your location data to predict where you're going to go next, as well as when you'll be offline, reports BuzzFeed's Nicole Nguyen. 

Facebook's response when asked about the applications was essentially: "we file patents on tons of stuff we never actually implement."

"We often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patent applications — such as this one — should not be taken as an indication of future plans," said company spokesperson Anthony Harrison. 

As BuzzFeed's Nguyen points out, however, the patent applications themselves indicate that Facebook, in general, is interested in tracking and prediction of users and their habits.

A May 30, 2017, Facebook application titled “Offline Trajectories” describes a method to predict where you’ll go next based on your location data. The technology described in the patent would calculate a “transition probability based at least in part on previously logged location data associated with a plurality of users who were at the current location.” In other words, the technology could also use the data of other people you know, as well as that of strangers, to make predictions.

If the company could predict when you are about to be in an offline area, Facebook content “may be prefetched so that the user may have access to content during the period where there is a lack of connectivity.” -BuzzFeed


A graph from the "Offline Trajectories" patent showing how the Facebook-developed technology would calculate the probability that a user will be offline based on geographic location prediction. If offline time is predicted, the app would preload News Feed content. via BuzzFeed

Google Maps for Android came under fire in 2016 for a similar feature called Driving Mode, which would use current location and web search history to guess users' destinations. Following public outcry, Google clarified that the feature will only predict when users are going to preprogrammed home and work destinations - with other locations based on google searches shown as suggestions. 

Facebook also applied for a patent on "Location Prediction Using Wireless Signals on Online Social Networks," which would track and use information from the strength of Wi-Fi, cellular, Bluetooth and near-field communication (NFC) signals to estimate a user's current location and anticipate where they will go next. 

This “background signal” information is used as an alternative to GPS because, as the patent describes, it may provide “the advantage of more accurately or precisely determining a geographic location of a user.”

The technology could learn the category of your current location (e.g., bar or gym), the time of your visit to the location, the hours that entity is open, and the popular hours of the entity. -BuzzFeed

As an example, Facebook could see that a user is in "geographic location 302" based on the map below, and then predict that you would travel to locations 304, 306 and 308 next based on places you've previously visited. " (maybe you’ve gone to Starbucks after visiting Walgreens) or on the travel behavior of other users the same age as you," suggests Nguyen.

In another Facebook patent application titled "Predicting Locations and Movements of Users Based on Historical Locations for Users of an Online System, location data from multiple people could be used to analyze location and movement trends in order to model "location chains," which could then be used for a "variety of applications," including "advertising to users based on locations and for providing insights into the movements of users," according to the patent application. 

Right now Facebook's app says it  collects your current location data in an effort to "provide more relevant and personalized experiences" (i.e. targeted ads). The company also continues to offer location-based features such as Nearby Friends and Messenger's Live Location service - while the patent applications suggest that Facebook is also exploring the use of location data to predict and monetize users' movements over time. 

Facebook is already recording information relevant to these applications, including data “about other devices that are nearby or on their network,” “nearby Wi-Fi access points, beacons, and cell towers,” “signal strength,” and “online and offline actions,” from third-party data providers.

Location data is valuable. It could help Facebook prove to businesses that it’s sending them lots of foot traffic, or it could improve Facebook’s ad-targeting mechanism. At the very least, it could give the company a better picture of who you really are, based on the kinds of establishments you visit. If you go to the gym a lot, you’re probably very interested in health and fitness, meaning that you’re more likely to click on ads or join groups related to health and fitness. -BuzzFeed

As we reported on Monday, location based targeted advertising sells at a premium, and tech companies have been scrambling to collect, analyze and make the most profitable use out of user location information - which is often sold without the knowledge of users

In order to limit what information you give to Facebook and others - you can follow these steps via BuzzFeed

• If you want to limit the location data you give Facebook, you can turn off location services for the mobile app (here’s how) — or, better yet, delete the mobile app from your phone and use Facebook in your mobile web browser. Refrain from adding your location to posts or checking into establishments.

• If you have an iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising and enable Limit Ad Tracking. There, you can also reset your advertising identifier, which clears the data associated with your advertising number. You can also opt out of location-based ads by going to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and scrolling all the way down to System Services and disabling Location-based Apple Ads.

• If you have an Android device, go to Settings > Google > Ads > and enable "Opt out of ads personalization." You can also reset your advertising ID there. All Google users can turn off ads personalization through the Ad Settings page.