Apple patents clone-making technology to sabotage electronic profiling

Filed Under: Apple, Privacy

Clones. Image from ShutterstockApple has filed a patent for making clones of your online identity that will serve up misinformation to data collectors, thus polluting the data stream that feeds electronic profiling.

The patent, released Tuesday by the US Patent and Trademark Office and reported by Patently Apple, is described in the patent abstract:

Techniques to pollute electronic profiling are provided. A cloned identity is created for a principal. Areas of interest are assigned to the cloned identity, where a number of the areas of interest are divergent from true interests of the principal. One or more actions are automatically processed in response to the assigned areas of interest. The actions appear to network eavesdroppers to be associated with the principal and not with the cloned identity.

These "areas of interest" that Apple proposes to fill in with fake data include semantic areas, categories, or subjects related to transactions or actions over the network, the patent states.

Cloned business peopleFor example, one area of interest might be photography. A consumer might assign interests to his or her clone that link the phony persona with a passion for not only photography but specific areas of photography.

Say, your clone might be the type who clicks "Like" on all kitten photos she can get her electronic mitts on.

The raison d'être for Apple's clones, according to the patent filing, is the citizenry's concerns over privacy as they conduct electronic commerce and other transactions.

As it is, individuals, particularly American citizens, are suspect of the motivations and actions of government and "Big Business." That skepticism has given rise to "privacy laws and rights enjoyed by American citizens [that] remain the envy of much of the rest of the world," Apple says.

(Is that true? I've always thought the EU was Privacy Central. But I digress.)

As e-commerce has grown, so has concern over the collection of confidential information, Apple says - not only by legitimate outfits but also by identity thieves.

But even the legal collection of our information is "extremely annoying," Apple notes, "such as when targeted and aggressive marketing tactics are used."

From the patent's background section:

...many feel it is an invasion of their privacy even if the marketing is currently considered to be lawful. Moreover, even legitimate and lawful enterprises that collect confidential information about a user runs the risk of having an intruder penetrate their databases and acquiring the information for subsequent unlawful purposes.

Hallelujah! LinkedIn much, anyone?

Internet surveillanceApple goes on to describe the government and its overly rich knowledge of its citizenry, drops the term "Big Brother" into the mix, throws in "Thought Police" and the plot summary for Orwell's 1984, before detailing the rise of "Little Brothers".

According to Apple, "Little Brothers" are thousands of automated programs that "perform Internet surveillance by collecting information to form electronic profiles about a user not through human eyes or through the lens of a camera but through data collection."

Little Brothers can monitor virtually everything we do online, Apple says. And here's the rub: users are hating the situation to the extent that they're fueling a burgeoning industry devoted to thwarting "dataveillance" and data collection.

Think spyware killers that detect programs that self-install on a user's device and monitor internet activity, or anonymizers that thwart data collection by, for example, cooking up fictitious user names for transactions.

Short of that, users are manually getting evasive. Users turn off cookies in their browsers, refuse to register for services that demand their email address or other confidential information, or just walk away from suspicious transactions altogether.

Even if you adopt all the evasive techniques and technologies, you're still being profiled, Apple says:

...information about the user is likely to still be successfully collected if the user engages in electronic commerce over the Internet, engages in information gathering over the Internet, or engages in downloading and installing services over the Internet. In a sense if the user engages in any Internet activity, information may be successfully collected about that user. Thus, even the most cautious Internet users are still being profiled over the Internet via dataveillance techniques from automated [Little] Brothers.

And so Apple is filing a patent to create a new type of evasive maneuver: the smokescreen of a clone.

The patent is worth a look, as is Patently Apple's outline of it, but in essence, a clone of your identity could have a fake birth date, gender, income level, marital status, number and ages of children, hair color, etc.

Cloned people. Image from ShutterstockAlthough, in fact, Apple says, it might be best to have your clone share some characteristics or confidential information with you: all the more likely that eavesdroppers think it's the real you.

The clone could carry out a wide range of automated actions consistent with assigned areas of interest, the patent says, such as:

  • Performing an internet search on a given area of interest
  • Activating selective results that when analyzed conform semantically to the area of interest
  • Activating advertisement banners in webpages
  • Filling out electronic surveys
  • Sending an email
  • Engaging in rudimentary online chat discussion by using techniques similar to Eliza (an automated chat engine)
  • Activating embedded links within a document that conforms semantically to the area of interest
  • Registering for services associated with the area of interest
  • Purchasing goods or services related to the area of interest.

It sounds great, doesn't it?

But here's the rub: why would Apple be interested in thwarting data collection? Isn't it one of the huge companies that profit off it?

As Digital Trends's Andrew Couts wrote, it all just sounds a little too good to be true:

In fact, such a technology feels out of place coming from any large corporation. As Apple itself notes in the patent: "Individuals, particularly American citizens, have always been suspect of the motivations and actions of their government and 'Big Business.'"

Well, it's just a patent. Maybe Apple won't ever get around to developing online identity clones.

But if it does, I'll look forward to how the development affects privacy.

In the meantime, I'll be outlining details for my very own clone. I'm thinking of hybridizing Vegan Black Metal Chef with Rachael Ray.

Feedback welcome.

Cloned men wearing glasses, and many identical businessmen images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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15 Responses to Apple patents clone-making technology to sabotage electronic profiling

  1. Machin Shin · 816 days ago

    I might just be a one that is a little too worried about "big business and big brother" but anyone stop to think maybe Apple wants to patent this to stop its creation? By holding the patent they can just refuse to make it and sue anyone else who tries.

    They also could create this technology and of course Apple data collection will be immune to the false data. You can be sure that Apple is not going and creating this out of the goodness of their hearts that are bubbling over with concern for the consumer.

  2. Charles Conway · 816 days ago

    The clone could carry out a wide range of automated actions consistent with assigned areas of interest, the patent says, such as:

    [...]
    Activating advertisement banners in webpages
    Filling out electronic surveys
    [...]

    So it's going to cost me money by clicking on PPC ads?

    No thanks Apple.

    • Anon · 813 days ago

      Anyone running advertisements on a pay per click (PPC) basis is smart to monitor actual results and not just number of click-throughs. If you pay for bogus clicks that don't result in sales, it's wasted dollars.

  3. Steve Nelson · 816 days ago

    "Well, it's just a patent. Maybe Apple won't ever get around to developing online identity clones."

    Or making apple wants to make sure that nobody ever develops a product using this method to thwart data collectors such as themselves. Anyone who tried would be violating Apple's patent. The consequence would be to freely enable what the technology was designed to fight.

    Are there actual examples of someone patenting a remedy so that they could get away with the problem that the remedy was designed to solve?

  4. Freida Gray · 816 days ago

    This brings several questions to my mind.The main ones are: Who creates the clone/s, does Apple or the individual create them?If I do a search,will I see my clone/s' search results with mine?I generally don't buy things on the internet;will my clone/s be authorized to do so without my knowledge?In other words,if I'm viewing my bank statement is my clone/s buying game cash from Zynga?Would I be seeing more pop-ups which include my clone/s' interest/s?Do I need to get each clone its own computer to allow it to have internet access?(Yes,some of these are off-the-wall questions).

  5. alpha4centauri · 816 days ago

    How is this different from what all of us already do by having persistent pseudonyms?

    • roy jones jr · 814 days ago

      I think Apple's supposed patent goes deeper than that. But I'm not too about Apple trying to do this either. I would be shocked to see if they are doing this out of the goodness of their heart.

  6. Dave · 813 days ago

    "Where's Wally" just got a whole new twist. Let's all wear red striped tank tops when surfing online. Or even when surfing, as my clone likes that so much.

  7. Peter · 813 days ago

    Very soon we will be thriving for a new law that prohibits patenting technologies that make it possible to protect oneself.

    You could not be wearing a coat during the winter, because the pharma company producing aspirin is holding the patent to create a coat?????

  8. Vito · 813 days ago

    Apple's track record on privacy is clouded by some very peculiar (actually, weird is more accurate) attitudes. For example, they doggedly refuse to incorporate a message receipt feature in Apple Mail. Why? Incomprehensibly (according to some Apple apologists), it's because message receipts are an "invasion of privacy". WTF? An invasion of whose privacy? The mail recipient?

    Any decent mail application gives users the ability to deny receipt requests, either globally or on a message by message basis. So, anyone who thinks a receipt request is an "invasion of privacy" could simply refuse the request, or disable the feature altogether.

    Meanwhile, serious communicants who recognize the importance of knowing whether their co-communicants are receiving their messages can't use Apple Mail for that purpose, and so it remains (effectively) a toy email application for people who don't care whether their messages are received.

    It's that kind of bizarre and convoluted perspective that makes me uncertain whether Apple's attitude regarding privacy, even though well-intentioned (from their point of view), might actually be a few cards short of a full deck.

  9. Randy · 813 days ago

    I have very good credit and so Apple would probably make my clone a spendthrift deadbeat. So how will the credit bureaus know what information is false? If a bank denies me a loan can I blame my clone? Can I sue Apple for defamation of character?

  10. Concerned citizen · 813 days ago

    Let's hope our clones are good and upstanding an not into perverted or criminal interests!

  11. Geir Laastad · 813 days ago

    I'll bet what Steve Nelson said, this is the reason:

    Quote "Or making apple wants to make sure that nobody ever develops a product using this method to thwart data collectors such as themselves. Anyone who tried would be violating Apple's patent. "

    Such (potential troll) patents should be dismissed in it's entirety. If Apple really want to make such a product, let them, -but don't give them patent right for it, -or next worst, just give them patent for their specific method used, ***not*** the for the idea itself. If the patent office accept this patent, they are really stupid.

  12. snert · 813 days ago

    Give Apple the patent for a specific method - Ok, that's what patents are all about.
    Is it possible to patent an Idea? Methinks not.

    When has stupidity stopped government departments?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.