In the dystopian novel The Circle, Google and Facebook have merged with other big tech companies to create a single, all-seeing and all-knowing social network. The work is fiction but a new patent application published last week makes the situation slightly less far-fetched.
In the application, Google describes a way to collect disparate messages from other applications — everything from social networks to email to SMS — and suggest an automatic answer. The idea is to help users make sure they don’t miss a message, and to save them time in responding to others’ “I got a new job” or “I’m having a baby” status updates.
Here’s how Google describes its proposed invention :
Many users use online social networking for both professional and personal uses [...] It is extremely important for the users to act in an adequate manner depending upon which social network on which they are operating. For example, it may be very important to say “congratulations” to a friend when that friend announces that she/he has gotten a new job. This is a particular problem as many users subscribe to many social different social networks… it is possible for a person to miss such an update.
Here’s a picture from the application that shows how the “invention” might work. It shows “Tom” being alerted to a flurry of activity from one of his social networks, and being invited to post Google’s suggested response (the Google tool is also a learning tree that will adapt to a user’s response):
So where do the incoming messages come from? The patent application doesn’t cite Google’s rivals directly, but some of the text in the description (“user B reacted by clicking like/dislike button”) appears to be a to nod Facebook, while Google’s list of “prior art” references include two announcements by Twitter. The application also refers to social networks for dating (OKCupid?) and academia (ResearchGate?), and proposes a way to monitor and respond to calendar items.
The “invention” could prove a useful way for Google users to handle notification overload. But one aspect of the patent application could alarm privacy advocates: Google’s proposal to use log-in credentials from other services to harvest a wide array of information.
The social network collector module interacts with the credentials module to retrieve the user’s login and password as well as other information necessary to access the social network application and social graph
A cause for privacy panic?
Companies’ use of each others’ user permissions, like that described in Google’s patent application, is hardly new of course. The practice is integral to the current API revolution, and has given rise to controversial innovations by other companies like LinkedIn, which recently introduced a way to wash email data through its own servers.
In Google’s case, the process described in the patent application is not just a new feature; it also signifies another attempt to respond to the rise of social networks. Google has long recognized that a lack of social communities are its Achilles heel, and the company is trying a variety of methods — including force-feeding people Google+ — to overcome that.
But does Google’s patent application also give rise to bona fide privacy concerns? On one hand, even though the patent application has given rise to alarmist headlines, the Patent Office is unlikely to make a decision to issue a patent for several years. The patent could never come to pass.
On the other hand, the idea of Google drawing data from every other communication platform may be a bridge too far for some — especially if gets a 20-year monopoly (which is what patents bestow) on a big part of that process.