One remarkable thing about Apple is that it has generally made decisions in favor of preserving its customers privacy rather than collecting data about their preferences or activities — or making it easy for third parties to do so without Apple users’ explicit permission. However, now the company has a patent on technology that could take an active role in preserving users’ privacy. Titled “Techniques to pollute electronic profiling,” the patent essentially describes methods that can be used to disseminate false information about individuals, making it more difficult for marketers, analytics companies, and even governments to collate accurate profiles of Internet users’ activities, preferences, and attitudes.
The basic idea behind the patent is to produce false online identities specifically designed to generate false digital noise to throw automated profilers and trackers off the scent of what someone is really doing online. These “clone” identities would appear to perform searches and engage in other online activities quite separate from a user’s true activities: folks who are particularly interested in Apple rumors might have clone identities that appear to be deeply interested in English cricket or petrochemical production in the southeastern United States. Similarly, someone pregnant with their first child might have clone identities that appear deeply interested in geriatric medicine, teen pop stars, or motocross to help obscure any baby-related activity — the kind of thing marketers pounce on like squirrels on peanuts.
The technology is fundamentally different from so-called anonymizers and anti-tracking technologies (including the new “Do Not Track” initiative) in that it doesn’t try to prevent the collection of legitimate data. Rather, it attempts to make the legitimate data difficult to pick out from the chaff and noise of apparently-identical material generated by “clones.”
The patent isn’t actually something Apple came up with on its own: it was originally assigned to Stephen Carter of Novell back in 2007. The patent came to Apple back in February as part of the Justice Department’s approval of the Google/Motorola merger. Interestingly, the patent was not part of the block of patents Novell sold to Microsoft as part of its own acquisition by Attachmate back in early 2011.
The patent as much as acknowledges its profile-pollution techniques would amount to just one step in an arms race in privacy protection: no doubt, analytics and tracking firms would respond to profile pollution with ever-more-sophisticated technology of their own designed to winnow out bogus information from real data they can act on or sell to marketers. Nonetheless, the idea is perhaps a better fit at Apple than at many other companies. For instance, Apple was not only among the first to implement Do Not Track, but is cracking down on the use of device UUIDs to track individual iOS users, and with iBookstore famously butted heads with the publishing industry over turning over customer data on subscribers. That’s not the kind of thing Google—itself one of the most pervasive online profilers on the planet—is ever likely to do.