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Yahoo applies for patent on mass surveillance system the Soviets would envy

Any doubt the Yahoo of today is a far cry from the company that led the doomed fight against the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping died earlier this month, courtesy of the United States Trademark and Patent Office. On March 31, 2015 Yahoo applied for a patent with implications that would make the Stasi sit up and cheer. The patent abstract is reprinted below, and at first glance it doesn’t read all that badly.

The basic idea behind this patent is simple: For all the talk of targeted advertising on personal devices, mass advertising is still generically aimed at whoever might be driving by or looking out the window. There’s no way for Samsung to scan a crowd of people and determine that they all use Android and might enjoy a flaming brick of death new smartphone. But there could be, if you and everyone else would just surrender all your personal information forever.

Yahoo describes a system in which remote sensors would analyze a group of people to determine who was in a position to view an advertisement and how likely they were to engage with that content. These remote sensors would identify who they were seeing, specifically, via the use of biometric data and image recognition, and could target ads to broad demographics or narrowly tailor them to specific interests (Yahoo calls this brave new world of data mining “grouplization.”

In some cases, this data would be used to build a generic profile of the group by broad characteristics related to age, race, gender, and so on — but that’s not the only use Yahoo envisions. From the patent application:

In another example, image recognition techniques can be used to identify the makes, models, and years of vehicles on a highway, from which demographic information relating to the socioeconomic status of the corresponding drivers can be made using, for example, previously stored marketing information. Such information can then be aggregated to represent all or at least a portion of the target audience. In yet another example, cell tower data, mobile app location data, or image data can be used to identify specific individuals in the target audience, the demographic data (e.g., as obtained from a marketing or user database) for which can then be aggregated to represent all or a portion of the target audience. In still another example, vehicle navigation/tracking data from vehicles equipped with such systems could be used to identify specific vehicles and/or vehicle owners. Again, those of skill in the art will appreciate from the diversity of these examples the great variety of ways in which an aggregate audience profile may be determined or generated using real-time information representing the context of the electronic public advertising display and/or additional information from a wide variety of sources.

What Yahoo describes here is deeply Orwellian, as Ars Technica reports. Yahoo begins by speaking about broad characteristics. But the references to “previously stored marketing information” and obtaining data from a marketing or user database is a dead giveaway. By cross-referencing your vehicle, style of dress, and demographic information against existing information in its own databases or those of third parties, Yahoo wants to build a network in which we are all under surveillance, constantly — at least, unless you live in a county where the cows outnumber the people.

And that’s what this actually boils down to. When I took a trip to Amsterdam several years ago, the first thing I noticed was how sparse the advertising was in that city compared with the United States. Here, outside of the privacy of our own homes, we are rarely completely out of sight from advertising billboards and signs. In Yahoo’s brave new world, the rich expanses of public life are nothing but a vector for advertising.

For centuries, laws in the United States have protected the right of people to congregate and voice their opinions on a wide range of topics, subject only to certain limited restrictions. Baked into these laws is a fundamental assumption that the right of people to gather and engage in speech is important, and that they should not be subject to threats or intimidation as a result.

Yahoo would no doubt protest that its ideas for a mass surveillance database are only meant for advertising, nothing more. But not two days ago, the ACLU (via Ars Technica) exposed how Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all sold data from users’ personal data feeds to a third-party company, Geofeedia — and how that company was selling the data to police. Geofeedia explicitly bragged to its police customers about how its data could be used to track protesters and demonstrators during events.

We’ve already written about how in Texas, cops are now utilized to collect on private debts, thanks to the mass tracking and surveillance of ordinary citizens who have committed no crimes and are not subject to a judge’s warrant. To their credit, all three firms cut ties with Geofeedia as soon as the story went public — but none of these massive firms had done any investigation into how their data streams were being used in the first place.

Companies like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Verizon have done amazing things for technology and the Internet. But their ideal vision of the world is one in which your every waking moment is tracked, monitored, and sold to the highest bidder to line their own pockets. It’s not a world with any room for protests or freedom of speech, whether you are marching on behalf of Black Lives Matter or at a pro-life rally. To the extent that those events matter to these companies, it’s only as an opportunity for a little targeted advertising.

Mega-corporations are a fact of modern life, but they shouldn’t be allowed to unilaterally define how we interact with each other in public. Putting the populace under mass surveillance for the purposes of ad targeting is a definitional change to how public space is conceived of and used. After the Snowden leaks, there is no credible argument that the NSA wouldn’t vacuum up this information with delight — and we’ve already seen how corporations and government are cooperating to erode what little sense of privacy people still possess.

Yahoo used to fight for your rights. Now, it’s just interested in monetizing them. Small wonder Verizon wanted to buy the company, at least until some of its cataclysmic security practices went public.

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