Apple was recently issued a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that is, well patently odd. It reads like a science fiction novel with elements of George Orwell and The Matrix mixed in. Apple literally calls it “Little Brothers Dataveillance.” This patent went public upon its approval, but has received little attention or fanfare in the media.
The patent is for technology that thwarts online profile “cloning” attempts by hiding personal data within Apple’s iCloud ID. It’s hard to sum up this patent in one or two sentences. It’s as weird as it is potentially world-shattering in its implications. All of which, of course, makes it highly interesting.
Little Brothers Dataveillance
We’re all familiar with the term “Big Brother” and its colloquial use today as a term used to refer to governments using surveillance and information gathering to monitor their citizenry. The term is so common now that we often ignore it when it’s used to describe something government is (or is supposedly) doing.
Apple refers to the thousands of little companies and groups online that gather information and conduct surveillance on people for various purposes. Some are legitimate (marketing surveys), some are illegal (identify theft attempts), and some are somewhere in between (gathering info without asking the user in order to conduct targeted marketing). In the industry, these are generally referred to under the blanket term of “dataveillance.” Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and every other name in technology does it. Even my own website does it through data logs and user access sign-ins. It’s how the Internet works, quite often.
It’s not the gathering of user data and activities that’s the problem. It’s when the gathering and use of the data goes too far and becomes personal that people start getting nervous. Few would object to a website owner collecting usage data about those who access his or her website, so long as the data isn’t personally identifiable (which it usually isn’t unless they log into something to ID themselves). Most would object if that data was collected and involved using cookies or other tracking devices to see what users do on OTHER websites not owned or operated by the webmaster.
Apple’s Patent – creating clones
So what Apple does is come up with a way to thwart that second kind of collection (and similar types that involve more personalized eavesdropping on users) by creating clones of the user. These virtual clones are near-exact replicas of the actual user’s online identity, but are different in important ways – their address, phone number, and IP address is changed, for instance.
The clone, controlled by the user (or completely automated if they choose) can be used to impersonate them on websites via their iCloud ID. Thus data collected may or may not be authentic and could be “shut down” at any time simply by killing the drone.
In a way it is, but the actual technology behind the cloning and masking the fact that it is a clone is pretty complex. The fact that Apple was issued a patent for this says a lot about its sophistication. If you want a very detailed analysis of the patent itself, see PatentlyApple.com (http://www.patentlyapple.com/patently-apple/2012/06/apple-wins-surprising-anti-big-brother-surveillance-patent.html )