Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 15:27 EDT

Row Over Google’s Environment-Sensing Patent Highlights Two Critical Tech Issues

March 24, 2012

Jedidiah Becker for RedOrbit.com

In what may represent the next phase in increasingly sophisticated online advertising, Google Inc. was awarded intellectual property rights this week to an idea called “advertising based on environmental conditions.” While the technology needed to make the idea a reality does not yet exist, a number privacy-rights activists are preemptively sounding the alarm, alleging that the scheme would take intrusive advertising to the next level.

In short, the patented idea would allow Google-using devices to sense various environmental factors — from temperature and weather to ambient noise — and then to use that information in combination with previously stored data to generate advertisements. These advertisements could then be tailor-fitted to you, taking into account not only your personal Web-history preferences but also those potential needs and wants that it infers from your surroundings.

In the words of the patent: “When determining what ads to serve to end users, the environmental factors can be used independently or in combination with matching of keywords associated with the advertisements and keywords in user search queries.”

“A web browser or search engine located at the user´s site may obtain information on the environment (e.g., temperature, humidity, light, sound, air composition) from sensors. Advertisers may specify that the ads are shown to users whose environmental conditions meet certain criteria.”

So how exactly could this information be utilized for targeted advertising? In the official patent form Google offered a few more or less innocuous examples.

“Advertisements for air conditioners can be sent to users located at regions having temperatures above a first threshold, while advertisements for winter overcoats can be sent to users located at regions having temperatures below a second threshold.”

So, say you´re walking around downtown Boston on a Saturday afternoon in late October and a serious cold-front is about to roll in. Well, Google already knows from your browsing history that you have a soft spot for Banana Republic (BR), a fact that they can now integrate with the seemingly trivial fact that the temperature where you are is dropping.

You stop at a corner to check your Gmail and, what do you know, you see an ad in the margins for a BR location just around the corner where that chic wool peacoat is on sale that you were going to wait for Santa to bring you.

(This is obviously an wholly unrealistic hypothetical since, as we all know, nothing you really want is ever on sale at Banana Republic.)


But assuming the technology catches up with the idea — which it inevitably will — Google´s new patent doesn´t just cover the ability to collect information about the weather; it could also pick up on other environmental factors, like sounds.

“An audio signal that includes a voice instruction from a user of the remote device can be received, and the environmental condition can be determined based on background sounds in the audio signal,” reads the patent.

So again the follow-up question, ℠How could the ability to detect background noise possibly help marketing programs come up with custom-fitted advertisements?´

On this question in particular, speculation has run wild.

Internet news site PC World which broke the story envisioned the following scenario:

“If you´re at a sports event and you call GOOG-411 for info about a nearby restaurant, Google will be able to identify the sporting event based on background noise heard through the handset´s microphone, and ads related to fans of that sport will be pumped to your phone.”

“Similarly, if you´re at a concert and you make a phone call during intermission, Google will be able to determine your musical taste based on the background noise (such as musicians tuning their instruments), as well as GPS info collected by the handset. This will allow Google to push ads for albums, tickets, and musical equipment to your phone,” wrote the website´s contributor John P. Mellow Jr.

Some of this speculation admittedly comes across as a bit far-fetched given the current state of the kind of technology that would be necessary to make the idea operational.

For instance, it´s difficult to imagine how sound-recognition technology — which seems to be lagging behind other branches of the tech industry and has been more than a little disappointing — could accurately decipher the kind of sporting event or concert you´re attending merely by picking up on background noise. After all, while speech-recognition software has been around almost as long as the PC, programs like Apple´s Siri and its Android counterparts still seem to have a hard time understanding commands even when you´re sitting in a sound-proof room and yelling directly into the microphone.


Nevertheless, if there´s anything the last decade has taught us, it is not to underestimate the mind-boggling speed with which technological progress unfolds — especially when millions of increasingly technophilic consumers are waving their dollars in the air in eager anticipation of the next big thing.

With that in mind, a number of staunch privacy advocates have not contented themselves to wait around until the technology arrives but are instead already launching trenchant if somewhat hyperbolic criticism of the burgeoning idea of environment-sensitive advertising.

Not surprisingly, Web commentaries have drawn comparisons with George Orwell´s perennially-invoked anti-totalitarian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, while others have seen clear parallels with the futuristic dystopian visions of Steven Spielberg´s film Minority Report.

Others, however, are calling for principled opposition rather than florid comparisons.

Eschewing parallels with fictional works of literature and film, Gus Hosein of the UK-based non-profit Privacy International (PI) chose to address what he sees as the concrete dangers inherent in this kind of technology.

With a mission statement to act as a watchdog for “surveillance and privacy invasions by governments and corporations,” Hosein says he and his colleagues at PI believe that the kind of technology patented by Google this week clearly crosses the line between tracking a user´s Internet activities and spying on his real life.

“Not content with collecting vast amounts of information from your online activities, it seems Google are looking to start exploiting the offline space as well,” Hosein told BBC News.

“Patents like this may never come to fruition, but they force us to ask ourselves: how many aspects of our lives will advertisers try to exploit, and where will it end? “¦ This is an attempt to turn our devices into personal spying devices, just so a company can try to sell you a coat on a cold day.”

What´s more, Hosein´s assessment is to a large measure characteristic of the reaction seen in the blogosphere. Negative reader comments have been expressing everything from mild annoyance at the idea to vituperative denunciations of Google, all the way to prophesies of an imminent totalitarian apocalypse.

Not everyone, however, views tailored advertisements as an ominous, privacy-diminishing threat.

“I actually appreciate targetted (sic) ads,” commented David Williams on the news of the patent.

“The point is that ads are always going to be there, so why not make them only things I´m interested in for myself or my company?”

A seemingly unconcerned David Goodman saw an occasion for humor: “So when my kids are screaming in the background – I should get a contextual ad for scotch?”


Others, like Joseph Allen Gier, saw the issue in the context of the growing strategic role played by patents in the tech industry.

“IP law is getting more and more like a chess game; the players have to think several moves ahead.”

In a public statement about the patent, a Google spokesman struck a similar chord in an attempt to explain the strategic significance of obtaining patent rights on ideas regardless of whether or not they ever get used.

“We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don´t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications.”

Essentially, given the existing structure and tenor of intellectual property laws in the U.S. and most of the Western world, companies gain a competitive advantage by patenting any and every new idea that pops into the heads of one of their employees — no matter how remote the possibility that the idea will ever see the light of day.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Samsung sit on massive arsenals of unused patents, many of which are of questionable usefulness.  However, if a rival company somehow manages to come up with a profitable way of using the idea (even if it´s never seen the original patent and actually “rediscovers” the idea on its own), the company that already holds the IP rights to the idea can ℠weaponize´ their patent, so to speak. This allows the patent-holding company to go after their innovative competitor with the full force of the law, taking them to court and demanding licensing fees, pecuniary damages and/or court injunctions against the sale of products that use the patent.

Thus, the current discussion on environment-sensitive advertising incidentally brings together two of the most critical and controversial issues currently being debated in the tech world; namely, the privacy ℠rights´ of Web users over the use of their personal data, and the tech industry´s increasingly aggressive use of patent laws as tools to suppress competitors.

For its part, Google has insisted that if its controversial patent ever becomes reality, it will respect the privacy wishes of its user by allowing them to opt out of the environment-monitoring application.

Moreover, as a handful of circumspect critics have pointed out, Google isn´t the only fish in the search-engine sea. After all, Google is a business, not a government. If you don´t like what they´re doing, you can pick a new one.

Source: Jedidiah Becker for RedOrbit.com