Facebook denies patent is used for tracking logged-out users

Facebook denies patent is used for tracking logged-out users

Summary: Facebook has denied its recently-granted patent is used for tracking logged-out users. The company says it just describes the Facebook Platform.

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Over the weekend, Uncrunched pointed to a blog post of mine (Facebook denies cookie tracking allegations) to underline a specific quote. "Facebook does not track users across the web," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. Right below, the blog pointed to a patent from the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) titled "Communicating Information in a Social Network System about Activities from Another Domain."

Here's the abstract:

In one embodiment, a method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain. The method includes maintaining a profile for each of one or more users of the social networking system, each profile identifying a connection to one or more other users of the social networking system and including information about the user. The method additionally includes receiving one or more communications from a third-party website having a different domain than the social network system, each message communicating an action taken by a user of the social networking system on the third-party website. The method additionally includes logging the actions taken on the third-party website in the social networking system, each logged action including information about the action. The method further includes correlating the logged actions with one or more advertisements presented to the one or more users on the third-party website as well as correlating the logged actions with a user of the social networking system.

Although the patent doesn't say that the assignee is Facebook, it does mention three inventors. A quick check on LinkedIn shows that all three of them work for the social networking giant: Kent Schoen, Gregory Dingle, and Timothy Kendall.

Still, I wanted to be absolutely sure, so I contacted Facebook and confirmed that this patent does indeed belong to the company. Facebook filed for the patent on February 8, 2011. It was granted on September 22, 2011.

Uncrunched's implication was that while Facebook said it is not tracking users on third-party websites, it has patented just such a method. I contacted Palo Alto for clarification, and here's what I heard back.

"Some people have suggested that this application is intended to patent tracking of logged out users," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, a careful reading of the portion of the application that purportedly describes tracking of logged out users (Paragraph [0099] shows that this excerpt is actually describing a fundamental part of Facebook Platform—social plugins that create social experiences across the web without logging into Facebook repeatedly or third party sites at all."

"Our social plugins allow Facebook users to go to any website with a social plugin and see what content their friends have liked without logging into that website. The user must, however, be logged into Facebook to see this social content on third party websites. What is being described in section [0099] of the application is the fact that you don't have to log into Facebook again at each third party site in order to see social plugin content. You just have to be currently logged in to Facebook when you visit the site. If you continue reading the application (i.e. paragraphs [0100] and [0101]), you'll also find it is consistent with our longstanding principles of notice, choice and control, and offers mechanisms and processes by which a person would be notified and could opt in or out."

"There are other things mentioned in the patent application and, for many of those, it's important to understand how companies use patents. That is, technology companies patent lots of ideas. Some of these ideas become products or features and some don't. As a result, current functionality and future business plans shouldn't be inferred from our patent applications."

Either way, privacy groups and US congressmen want the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Facebook for these and other practices. It's up to the government to decide whether this is a problem for users or not.

See also:

Topics: Browser, Collaboration, Legal, Software Development, Social Enterprise

Emil Protalinski

About Emil Protalinski

Emil is a freelance journalist writing for CNET and ZDNet. Over the years,
he has covered the tech industry for multiple publications, including Ars
Technica, Neowin, and TechSpot.

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9 comments
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  • It is only...

    a bug, if people find out about it. Until then, it is a marketing goldmine...

    Given some of the other things that have been patented, found out about and claimed as bugs (by Google, Microsoft, Facebook etc.), it wouldn't surprise me.
    wright_is
  • RE: Facebook denies patent is used for tracking logged-out users

    I'd like to know how on earth they got a patent issued in just 8 months! Patents I've filed have taken years just to get a review, let alone issued.
    junk@...
  • Hmmm...

    If I understand this right:

    1. Someone on your friend list logs into Facebook.
    2. They click on the "like" button on a 3rd-party website, which links back to facebook.com & shows up on their profile as a "liked" site.
    3. You then log into Facebook.
    4. You go to the 3rd-party website, & it will tell you if your friends have liked the site.

    #1 & #2 combined together means that Facebook has a record of your friend going to a particular website -- since the "like" buttons don't work without logging in.

    #3 & #4 combined *also* provide Facebook with a record of where you've gone on the Internet, since the "social app" on the 3rd-party website not only requires you to be logged into Facebook, but also directly accesses your profile to cross-reference your friends with Facebook's records of their access.

    And *how* is this not tracking your browsing history?
    spdragoo@...
  • This is a published application

    Note to author: please confer with IP professional when opining about IP issues.

    1. A method for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain, the method comprising: maintaining a profile for each of one or more users of the social networking system, each profile identifying a connection to one or more other users of the social networking system and including information about the user; receiving one or more communications from a third-party website having a different domain than the social network system, each message communicating an action taken by a user of the social networking system on the third-party website; logging the actions taken on the third-party website in the social networking system, each logged action including information about the action; and correlating the logged actions with one or more advertisements presented to the one or more users.

    The insidiousness here is that the ads are now made even more evil.
    hoffberg
  • RE: Facebook denies patent is used for tracking logged-out users

    That would be new, if true, which I doubt.
    tom@...
  • RE: Facebook denies patent is used for tracking logged-out users

    Where there's smoke... (And there's a heck of a lot of smoke...)

    Facebook has taken the low road since its very inception, doing things that have never been done before in the software industry, just to increase its # of users, broaden its reach, etc... For example, other software companies had *thought* before of connecting to users' contact books and sending mass messages to every single person in the contact book saying "John is using ProductX! Don't you want to??". But in the interest of software ethics, *respect* for users, and just plain old *traditions* in the software industry, no company had actually done this. Facebook came along and said "Sure, give us access to your contact database and we'll send an automated email to every single person in your contact database saying you want to connect with them on Facebook -- even ex-wives, ex-bosses, whoever!" This is just one example of Facebook overturning ethical norms.

    There are many, many other examples, including yes the tracking of users not only after they have logged out -- but also before they have even ever become a member of Facebook! Yes, incredibly enough for the past two years Facebook has also been tracking whenever anyone clicks or even *hovers* on a Facebook "Like" button, ****even if that person has never even signed up for Facebook****. The intent here is that when and if the person *does* at some point sign up for Facebook later on, then FB will immediately have a complete log of all of that person's interests, etc. based on all those hovers over Facebook's like button. Such a practice is egregiously, incredibly, horrifically unethical. To track someone before they've even accepted your terms of service?? But yes, FB chose to do it...

    One could go on and on...

    I speak as a professional software developer who cares about the road the industry is going down. I stopped using FB a couple years ago, and no I don't use any competing product at this time.
    aglanz@...
  • Is this different from telephone calls?

    Telecommunication providers (telephone companies of all kinds) have a record of everyone you called and everyone that called you, when, where, duration, etc. They have a business purpose for this information. A primary consideration is their ability to do billing. It would be trivial (except for volume) to put together "networks" of people.

    How would you compare and contrast these two situations; telecom and Facebook?
    pwatson
  • Facebook denies patent

    The FTC is never going to leave Facebook alone.

    <a href="http://www.storagepost.com/locations/new-york/bronx">bronx self storage</a>
    jordanholland23
  • RE: Facebook denies patent is used for tracking logged-out users

    F.B. is nothing more than an insidious Government sponsored effort to control and keep tabs on the masses of idiots that use it, and think they are getting something, e.g. free games, for nothing. Except mass advertising. Social Network? Social networking is going out and meeting people face to face and trading information and knowledge. Keep the masses in front of the PC and feed them garbage to keep them passive. I wonder how much data the F.B.I., Homeland Security, CIA, DOD, etc., etc., gets from all those idiots? F.B. SUCKS, but it's the best brain washing technique I've ever seen. This could be better that when the Churches controlled the peoples lives in the Dark Ages. Wow!
    Denny Fry