Purposeful pollution: An Apple patent, but not an Apple idea

It would be nice if Apple were going to implement the technology in U.S. Patent No. 8,205,265, which was issued to the company in June. There's no reason to think that it will, but I hope Apple at least won't block others from doing so.

Apple did not come up with the technology in this patent. It came from Novell as part of a batch of about 6,000 patent applications Apple purchased earlier this year. The inventor is listed as Stephen R. Carter, of Spanish Fork, Utah, who is listed as an inventor on about 90 other U.S. patents, including No. 8,069,485, which has the same specification, but different claims, as the new patent. Carter's patents cover an impressive range of topics. He clearly was a Novell asset and I hope he is still working on new stuff.

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The title of the patent -- "Techniques to pollute electronic profiling" -- was immediately intriguing to the privacy fanatic in me. And the specification itself did not disappoint. I will not provide a detailed description here of what's in the patent -- for that you can read the patent itself or the very good exploration at Patently Apple.

Basically, the patent describes creating a bunch of you -- clones, each of which can have its own set of characteristics such as age, marriage status, number of kids, income level, credit cards, addresses and specific interests such as photography. Each of the clones is programmed to do a succession of Internet actions, such as searching, going to websites, participating in online chats, sending email, filling out Web surveys, etc., all trying to reinforce the believability of an Internet user with a particular interest. The interests can range from your own to wildly different ones. The clones are active when you are not using your machine and cause anyone observing your machine to be confused as to your actual interests and characteristics.

This idea reminds me of a proposal I heard in the early days of cookies on the Web. Someone would set up a "cookie bank" on the Internet. Your Web browser would be programmed to send all cookies it received from websites to the cookie bank and would get a random cookie for that website in return for use in future visits. This process would make useless the tracking part of cookie use -- for us privacy wackos this would be a good thing.

The Carter patent may be a better approach, since it gets around the kind of computer fingerprinting some disreputable advertisers seem to be using. 

The question of privacy on the Internet is a combination arms race and funding model.

The arms race, which privacy advocates are losing, has been well documented by The Wall Street Journal over the last two years.

The funding model issue is a harder one. Where there are a lot of Internet sites that provide information for free, not all of them do so just because it is the right thing to do. Museums, government sites, educational institutions and private individuals do run websites that are truly free to the visitor. The sites cost money to run but the providers consider that cost is worth it for their own reasons. Other sites exist to sell you something and the operating cost is part of the sales expense. And there are some sites that charge you just to visit. But that leaves an awful lot of sites that quite reasonably want to make money from advertising and believe that they will make more from advertising if they know more about you.

But there should be some limits, something that too many advertisers find hard to accept. Europe is imposing limits. I do not see that happening here considering the factors that go into the rule-making process in Washington, so we privacy nuts have to turn to other methods. Now if only someone would implement Mr. Carter's technology -- that is something I would pay for.

Disclaimer: There are privacy rules for educational institutions like Harvard, at least for student data, but I have seen no university opinion on the intrusiveness of some advertisers. So the above is my own view.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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