One of Microsoft’s latest patent applications is a humdinger. It proposes to turn the Kinect camera into a snitch for movie studios, reporting back just how many friends you’ve got in your living room and what they’re watching. Think that sounds alarmist? Here’s what it actually says: “The users consuming the content on a display device are monitored so that if the number of user-views licensed is exceeded, remedial action may be taken.” It’s that blatant – a system to spy on private viewing habits.
If put into practice, Microsoft’s plan could mean that the film you’re watching suddenly stops playing if it detects that you’ve got more people squashed on to the sofa than the licence allows. You’d then be prompted to buy a more expensive licence to keep watching. It’s as if Big Brother had built 1984’s Telescreen not to monitor the population but to ensure no one was pirating the Two Minutes Hate.
In all likelihood, Microsoft will struggle to actually apply this patent in the real world. While copyright holders would be delighted, customers would be turned off by such a draconian system. But that’s what’s interesting about this application and patent applications in general: they often reveal what companies would do if they could get away with it. The black and white drawings and blandly technical language can cover immoral, scary and downright evil ideas.
There was an even more striking example from Apple earlier this year. In September, it was granted a patent for “Apparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device”, i.e. a system allowing companies or governments to remotely disable mobile phones and tablets in a particular area.
While Apple mentions benign examples such as preventing phone calls from disturbing concerts or ensuring devices are switched off on planes, it also states: “Covert police or government operations may require complete "blackout" conditions.” That’s exactly the kind of feature certain governments would love to use to suppress pictures and videos. The patent Apple put its stamp on is a handy form of censorship regardless of whether it will ever apply it.
Last year, Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, said that the company would hold off from creating a facial recognition service because it would be “crossing the creepy line”. Still, Google has filed for and been granted extensive patents in the area and, as its Project Glass augmented reality goggles move forward, who knows when the “creepy line” will shift?
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