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Facebook Patents Inferring Income of Users 129

Posted by Soulskill
from the all-about-the-benjamins dept.
theodp writes "Among the patents granted to Facebook this week by the USPTO is one for Inferring Household Income for Users of a Social Networking System. 'For example,' Facebook explains, 'an assumption might be made about a user that reads CNN.com and nytimes.com every day that the user is in a higher income bracket than another user that only reads TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com on the theory that a user who reads newspapers might be assumed to make more money than a user who only reads celebrity gossip blogs.' Advertisements such as those for travel packages, cars, and home mortgages, Facebook adds, 'are targeted to users based on income bracket,' which might also be inferred by 'gathering and analyzing different types of information about a user's geographic location.' Hey, what could go wrong?"
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Facebook Patents Inferring Income of Users

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  • by LinuxIsGarbage (1658307) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:43PM (#45627429)

    Browse anonymously
    This is why I use EasyPrivacy list in adblock plus to keep Facebook from getting that info. They know you read a page if it has a "Like" button on it.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:17PM (#45627687)

      Browse anonymously

      Excellent; that puts you into a group of 0.001%. As a highly technically literate user you will have monthly household income of between 10,000 and 11,500 (95% chance) and are less likely to want pop star accessories. However, there is a 30% increase in the chance of you purchasing electronic gadgets. The correlation of your IP address with a slashdot reader decreases your chance of wanting to buy wedding accessories by over 99.72%.

      Stay anon; please.

      • by Bovius (1243040)

        *slow clap*

        Absolutely magnificent. Thank you, this made my day.

    • Browse anonymously This is why I use EasyPrivacy list in adblock plus to keep Facebook from getting that info. They know you read a page if it has a "Like" button on it.

      I just block Facebook in my proxy and/or router.

  • FB, you shouldn't stop there! just patent all statistical research!
    • don't forget to throw in claims about 'heuristics', 'on a computer' and 'over the internet'.

    • by jonnyj (1011131) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @03:14PM (#45628051)

      This is patently absurd. In the UK, Equifax, Experian and Call Credit already sell income predictions based on statistical modelling of credit bureau information. How is switching the underlying data set in any way a unique or clever thing to do?

      This is nothing more than a fancy regression algorithm.

      • by mjwalshe (1680392)
        Advertisers already do this - broadsheet newspapers attract a different set of advertisers than tabloids and quite a few engineers are telegraph readers as historically Thursdays was the day that all the engineering jobs where advertized likewise Wednesdays for the Guardian and social work jobs.

        I can remember being told to say that you read a proper newspaper (times telegraph or guardian) in job interviews for professional jobs to mark out that you where one of us and not some over promoted clerical assi
      • by gronofer (838299)
        Besides the obvious prior art, the patent also seems to be incomplete. I haven't read it in detail, but a quick scan suggests that they have patented the analysis of data using methods such as "heuristics analysis module 308" which are not further specified. Do they expect to have a patent for the very idea of heuristics analysis for the given application? I was always lead to believe that ideas aren't patentable, only specific inventions, so shouldn't they be describing exactly what this "heuristics analys
  • by excursive (2823185) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:43PM (#45627435)
    It doesn't really matter if the algorithm is wrong for an individual, as long as it it generally correct for the population.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jones_supa (887896)
      Yes, but a typical Slashdot geek thinks that an invention has to be 100% perfect to be useful at all.
      • by femtobyte (710429)

        There is no level of perfection at which an invention to benefit advertisers becomes useful at all. In fact, the farther from perfection, the less dis-utility it will have for society.

    • Except to the individual who gets redlined by the algorithm.
  • This is pointless (Score:5, Informative)

    by sugar and acid (88555) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @01:43PM (#45627439)

    The reason Facebook has any advertising income, and therefore value as a company, is that it has the ability to provide very directed advertising.

    If you want to target people who read cnn.com and nytimes.com, why not just advertise there like you always could.

    • Re:This is pointless (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Rhyas (100444) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:14PM (#45627661) Journal

      I can think of a couple of reasons to not go direct in this case:

      1) It's possibly more expensive to advertise on CNN or NYT.
      2) There's no inherent ability to "share" or "like" an ad. (yes, people do it)

      Facebook adds value not only for the targeting, but for the "social" nature of it's platform.

    • by NoKaOi (1415755)

      The reason Facebook has any advertising income, and therefore value as a company, is that it has the ability to provide very directed advertising.

      If you want to target people who read cnn.com and nytimes.com, why not just advertise there like you always could.

      I think the phrase "For example" implies the answer. They're giving that as one example of how you can infer somebody's income, but the whole point of aggregating as much info as possible about somebody is that you have more factors available. If somebody reads cnn and nytimes daily, they are more likely to be wealthier. If they read cnn, nytimes, meet 10 other factors that imply their income, live in an area with a hot real estate market, and have been looking at real estate related websites, then you'r

    • by McGruber (1417641) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @04:07PM (#45628387)
      A small clarification:

      The reason Facebook has any advertising income, and therefore value as a company, is that the people purchasing FB advertisements believe it has the ability to provide very directed advertising.

      • by swillden (191260)

        A small clarification:

        The reason Facebook has any advertising income, and therefore value as a company, is that the people purchasing FB advertisements believe it has the ability to provide very directed advertising.

        Actually, online advertisers know exactly how effective the directed advertising is. Unlike traditional advertising, where the old saw goes "I know 50% of my advertising budget is working, I just don't know which 50%", online ads can very often be linked precisely to specific sales. This is actually the biggest factor in Google's success as an advertiser; good targeting was important, too, but the real breakthrough was being able to help advertisers quantify very precisely what return they were getting on t

  • uhm... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    They do know everyone selling data + advertising already does this, right? This is a VERY obvious use of aggregated data.

    I declare Shenanigans!

    Shenanigans on Facebook!
    Shenanigans on the USPTO!

    They are trying to scam us now and it needs to be stopped Officer Barbrady!

    • They do know everyone selling data + advertising already does this, right? This is a VERY obvious use of aggregated data.

      Before you make such a judgement, you might want to actually read the patent. Slashdot summaries almost always completely misrepresent what is actually covered in the claims section of the patent.

      • Re:uhm... (Score:5, Informative)

        by mwvdlee (775178) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:42PM (#45627845) Homepage

        I've just finished reading the claims and scanning the description and found no part of it that should be patentable; anybody reasonably skilled in statistics would end up with something similar or even identical. Heck, I'd even end up with something pretty much the same, and I have no formal background in statistics.
        Also note that the patent names the required activities only (mostly it just lists potential sources of data); it does not explain the methods or mechanisms used to perform those activities.

        • by Nerdfest (867930)

          So basically it's about as deserving as the vast majority of software patents that are granted.

        • I've just finished reading the claims and scanning the description and found no part of it that should be patentable...

          You are, of course, a professional in the field of statistics and modeling? Marketing perhaps? You are maybe a patent lawyer?

          No?

          You're just some arm-chair pontificater?

          I thought so.

          Also note that the patent names the required activities only (mostly it just lists potential sources of data); it does not explain the methods or mechanisms used to perform those activities.

          Complete bullshit. The "Detailed Description" goes way beyond what you suggest.

          Certainly such a patent is asinine, but your over-simplistic "argument" - such that it is - does not address any of the issues and in fact is the standard type of argument from people that have no clue as to how to read a patent.

  • Whenever someone uses a correlation statistic? What about when someone uses a set of data to infer something about other populations?

    It may sound an awful lot like they patented statistics, correlations, and sampling, but it's different 'cause it's on a social network. Totally different.

  • Not sure how redlining applies here, seems like much of a stretch from the 1934 National Housing Act [wikipedia.org]* proscribing to the FHA to create redlining three decades before it got that name, to displaying advertisements based on viewing habits.

    *See first paragraph in the History section of submitters link on redlining. [wikipedia.org]
    • by theodp (442580) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:06PM (#45627613)

      The patent specifically suggests using inferred income for targeting mortgage offers, which the Wikipedia article notes has been a ripe area for abuse: "Reverse redlining occurs when a lender or insurer targets minority consumers, not to deny them loans or insurance, but rather to charge them more than could be charged to a comparable majority consumer whose business is more sought after"

      • The patent specifically suggests using inferred income for targeting mortgage offers, which the Wikipedia article notes has been a ripe area for abuse: "Reverse redlining occurs when a lender or insurer targets minority consumers, not to deny them loans or insurance, but rather to charge them more than could be charged to a comparable majority consumer whose business is more sought after"

        That is even more of a stretch. The Facebook scheme is nothing more than presenting advertising to people based on viewing habits, not some scheme to deny people the opportunity to risk future treasure on real property.

        • by theodp (442580)

          Viewing habits here, Facebook explains, are just a proxy for income bracket,, which will be used to categorize and target users. And, as this article on Digital Inclusion and data profiling [firstmonday.org] notes, "Digitally dependent surveillant technologies do work differently in how they collect, categorize, target, and overall exploit users. As these technologies emerge as central to the current economy, old forms of prejudice and injustice can be grafted onto these new tools." Doesn't have to be that way, sure, but som

        • by ceoyoyo (59147)

          Absolutely. Someone else already has the patent on adjusting prices depending on someone's net usage.

          • One thing I am absolutely not arguing is the ridiculous notion that anything like this should be eligible for a patent at all.
            • by ceoyoyo (59147)

              I think it's kind of ironic that Facebook just applied for a frivolous patent for gathering and analyzing the information, but someone else already holds the frivolous patent for acting upon that information.

      • The patent specifically suggests using inferred income for targeting mortgage offers, which the Wikipedia article notes has been a ripe area for abuse: "Reverse redlining occurs when a lender or insurer targets minority consumers, not to deny them loans or insurance, but rather to charge them more than could be charged to a comparable majority consumer whose business is more sought after"

        Why would a "comparable majority consumer"'s business be "more sought after", especially online?

        I suspect the unpopular truth is that we are talking about customers who are not comparable, and that lenders want to charge more for higher risk, which makes perfect business and ethical sense.

  • by avivgr (1556371)
    what's next? inferring men genitalia size? i can't believe the general public just doesn't care about their privacy being so violated in exchange for a beef stew. But then i heard that having no facebook profile is an indicator for being a psychopath, so who knows anymore.
    • by game kid (805301)

      They're already inferring men's size, and always small at that ("do you want to be BIGGER?" "is your erectile dysfunction holding you back?" "when the moment is right, will your donger be ready?").

    • I don't know what I'm more scared about -- the invasion of privacy from companies like this, or that the word privacy had only appeared on this page 3 times when I made this post. They already take what you purchase on those loyalty cards, match it up with your credit card info, which is then sold to an ad company. You then have those news stories where the advertisers know a woman is pregnant before the father does. This is exactly why I have a fake name I use online. It may not help, but it'll throw them
      • by avivgr (1556371)
        Yes i use duckduckgo as my homepage and colleagues at work laugh at me telling me i'm paranoid. Young kids don't even understand what the issue is about, they happily give away their privacy like it doesnt matter.
  • Profiling... (Score:2, Offtopic)

    by ElitistWhiner (79961)

    In a post-capitalist economy, this is the 1% new power version of racial profiling. Think of it as a form of denial of services. You'll never see what the 1% does much less enjoy. Knowledge is power and denying information denies access to all but the 1% who matter.

    • Re:Profiling... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by femtobyte (710429) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:40PM (#45627827)

      "Post-capitalist"? We're reaching the zenith of everything Capitalism has sought to achieve. Record income disparities with unparalleled wealth for the super-wealthy, concentrating control over every aspect of society in the hands of a tiny elite. Thanks to Facebook, "the markets" (a.k.a. billionaire investors) even control human social interactions once considered sacrosanct from corporate intrusion. The Capitalist economy is all about the ascendancy of the 1% (and the 0.01% within that).

      • Unfettered capitalism will eventually bring the US to its knees if the current income disparity continues to widen. If Congress wants to pass the 'Kicking Puppies and Kittens Act of 2013', the regular people will have no say in the matter once businesses open their wallets and pull out their "free speech". Right now, we have a peasant class, head above water class and a royal class, without the titles or noblesse oblige.

        Side note: I know Futurama did it as a joke, but it's scary to think how accurate the
      • by mjwx (966435)

        "Post-capitalist"?

        Its become cool to declare something to be "post" it's almost "post-hipster". Secondly, if you want to see what the 1% enjoys, there are entire TV channels dedicated to it.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:22PM (#45627717) Journal
    Well, I hack c++ for a living in my day job, and don't have the time to hack out apps. Wish I have the time to hack out a code to let users launch an app, that will silently log into facebook, and then browse all the high brow, high income indicating sites in the background, without ever displaying anything on screen. It should also have random delays, and estimated time to read a page to create proper dwell times on pages. Or write a random web crawling app whose main job is to cover so much of the internet there is no effective pattern.

    If enough users launch it, it will completely mess up all these statistical correlations and eventually provide anonymity by increasing the noise.

    • by brit74 (831798)
      I detected a flaw in your idea: "If enough users launch it". There's virtually no benefit for anyone to install this app except to make a very tiny contribution to undermining Facebook's algorithm (while eating up your wireless data), and most people don't really care enough about that to do the work. Your idea seems like a clever way to undermine Facebooks algorithms, but it won't actually be used widely enough to make a dent in the system, which means it's gives people false hope that you this thing can
  • by Kwyj1b0 (2757125) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:22PM (#45627721)

    If algorithms can be patented, then sure. If FB is using a unique algorithm to infer income, it might be granted (that I think patenting mathematics is absurd is irrelevant - if you believe your algorithm is so great, keep it a secret. Application of mathematics to one area shouldn't be patentable). I'd be surprised if Amazon doesn't look at your shopping history and suggest products in your price range. If I never bought anything over $25, why should they show me a product costing over $10,000?

    On the other hand, what does this have to do with redlining? My outrage that statistics is being patented has nothing to do with the fact that FB should be allowed to show whatever ads to whomever they please. They are not a government organization (and haven't taken taxpayer money) that shouldn't be allowed to discriminate between consumers.

  • by Chrisq (894406) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:24PM (#45627735)
    Isn't this exactly what marketing research companies have done before. A quick web search says [caci.co.uk]:

    corn is a powerful consumer classification that segments the UK population. By analysing demographic data, social factors, population and consumer behaviour, it provides precise information and an understanding of different types of people. Acorn provides valuable consumer insight helping you target, acquire and develop profitable customer relationships and improve service delivery.

    This is just another case of adding "... on a computer" or "... over wifi" to something that's already an established practice to gain a patent.

    • Agreed. There is probably plenty of prior art, but one would be crazy to challenge the patent because:

      1. That would give away a trade secret
      2. Facebook could crush most competitors in patent suits

      Congratulations, Facebook, you are a patent troll

    • Isn't this exactly what marketing research companies have done before. A quick web search says [caci.co.uk]:

      corn is a powerful consumer classification that segments the UK population. By analysing demographic data, social factors, population and consumer behaviour, it provides precise information and an understanding of different types of people. Acorn provides valuable consumer insight helping you target, acquire and develop profitable customer relationships and improve service delivery.

      This is just another case of adding "... on a computer" or "... over wifi" to something that's already an established practice to gain a patent.

      No, this is another case of not reading the claims. The patent claims go into confidence metrics and applying advertising criteria based on those metrics. Now, maybe there's other prior art out there that teaches that element, but your link is the equivalent of saying "Tesla got a patent on the power train in the Model S? But isn't that really just a Ford Model T adding '... with a battery'?"

    • by Frosty Piss (770223) * on Saturday December 07, 2013 @06:18PM (#45629101)

      This is just another case of adding "... on a computer" or "... over wifi" to something that's already an established practice to gain a patent.

      They are not patenting the concept, they are patenting a specific algorithm.

  • by AndyKron (937105)
    Doesn't bother me. I said Fuck FaceBook years ago.
    • by femtobyte (710429)

      Don't worry, your friends and family will help upload all your personal information to Facebook to sell to advertisers, to make sure you don't miss out on anything.

  • Turn it all off (Score:3, Insightful)

    by GWXerog (3151863) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:40PM (#45627831)
    There is an browser addon called Disconnect that blocks your browser from loading most if not all tracking resources, this includes the social media buttons used by Facebook to track your browsing. I put it onto every browser I come into contact with that supports it. https://disconnect.me/ [disconnect.me]
    • That software is interesting because it was co-developed by a former Doubleclick engineer and privacy attorney. I've never heard of it before, but I'll have to look deeper. Right now, I have rules in my router that won't let my computer connect to any URL that contains the word 'ad' or 'doubleclick'.
    • by rahvin112 (446269)

      Firefox addon Ghostery does the same including going to the next logical step of self-destructing all cookies that you don't explicitly protect. It also give the ability to white/blacklist. Combined with addon's that take care of the long term cookies that Adobe created with flash and you have the ability to block almost all tracking.

      I've yet to see a single addon that gets all the different avenues of tracking. It's not enough to block the tracking widgets because cookies can reveal you, and Adobe flash co

    • While we're at it, here are Facebook's IP address blocks

      31.13.24.0 - 31.13.31.255 aka 31.13.24.0/21
      31.13.64.0 - 31.13.127.255 aka 31.13.64.0/18
      66.220.144.0 - 66.220.159.255 aka 66.220.144.0/20
      69.63.176.0 - 69.63.191.255 aka 69.63.176.0/20
      69.171.224.0 - 69.171.255.255 aka 69.171.224.0/19
      74.119.76.0 - 74.119.79.255 aka 74.119.76.0/22
      103.4.96.0 - 103.4.99.255 aka 103.4.96.0/22
      173.252.64.0 - 173.252.127.255 aka 173.252.64.0/18
      204.15.20.0 - 204.15.23.255 aka 204.15.20.0/22

  • I think it's more likely that they can infer what you make BY WHAT CURRENT JOB YOU LIST. Someone listed as working as a lab tech somewhere is obviously going to make more than someone listed as working at McDonald's.
    • by mysidia (191772)

      A mid-level corporate manager at McDonalds probably makes more money than some lab technician.

      By that logic, you could look at the IP they are connecting to Facebook from.... if they have been connecting from Google's IP address space, then you might infer they are an office worker who gets the privilege of surfing the internet at work -- which puts them in a higher bracket than someone who connects from a dial-up only ISP or AOL.

    • by McGruber (1417641)

      Someone listed as working as a lab tech somewhere is obviously going to make more than someone listed as working at McDonald's.

      Not if the lab tech is a graduate student in the U.S.

      • by femtobyte (710429)

        Unfortunately, even though gradstudent wages are miserably low, the sad truth is that McDonald's near-minimum-wage is even more terrible. And, unlike gradstudents, the majority of people working McDonalds jobs are adults, often raising families, near the top of their career advancement --- they're not about to see double or triple salary after a few more years of burger flipping. US gradstudents have it tough, but the US working poor have it even harder (levels of poverty difficult to understand for anyone

  • by JoeyRox (2711699) on Saturday December 07, 2013 @02:57PM (#45627949)
    Pretty, pretty low.
  • Facebook's advertising is all about micro targeting based on a user's behavior, open to all with the smarts to read it via the Open Graph API.

    Advertising (TV, Radio, Banners, Internet) is sold on an open market bidding system. You bid for impressions (CPI) and clicks (CPC). Coveted demographics - such as 16-20 year old females, or wealthy folks have very high bid rates. So being able to infer people's income makes good business sense.

    Facebook has a good model, as you bid for placement based on age,
  • Another confirmation that our idea of the internet has devolved in the hands of entrepeneurs.
    • by Bob_Who (926234)

      No wonder facebook sucks.

    • by cffrost (885375)

      Another confirmation that our idea of the internet has devolved in the hands of entrepeneurs.

      I'm with you. Some people seem to have had it drilled into their heads that they've got some moral duty to download and expose themselves to corporate propaganda ((i.e., advertizements) and the malware* that frequently accompanies it), lest the Internet shrivel up and die. They forget that aside from spam, the Internet started out nearly ad-free, and that ads were scarce for a while in the beginning of the 1990s web-boom.

      I don't think it'd necessarily be a bad thing if ad-dependent content disappeared; what

  • How about them Knicks?

    This is a ridiculous patent and should be invalidated. As others have said, this is correlation. Nothing patentable here at all.

    I taught data mining in college. This is a standard example of relating attributes to income. It is not novel.

  • WHAT THE FUCK. I don't normally give useless responses.. but WHAT THE FUCK. PATENT REFORM NOW.
  • My Town is unusual in that we have an equal spread of folks in each quintile. That is, we have a few legit plutocrats and a few folks "on scholarship" for school lunch, and everyone in between. Unless you are the NSA or IRS (or both) income is a tricky thing to guess.
  • ... has been inferring a potential customer/candidate's value. Forever. How can one particular "inventor" possibly claim that it's novel and unobvious?

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