Apple first pitted itself against Big Brother -- IBM, in Steve Jobs' eyes -- in the famous 1984 Super Bowl ad. Nearly 30 years later, a newly granted patent reveals Apple's plans to take on Big Brother again, even if he isn't just one company anymore.
Patently Apple, a bi-weekly intellectual property news site, covers countless Apple patents for hardware, software and other future inventions like crack-proof glass and digital wallets. But last week, Patently Apple came across one of the most surprising patents ever to be granted to Apple. Essentially, Apple wants to protect us from Big Brother, and it has invented a useful technology to do so.
The patent describes an intriguing method to help users keep their personal information hidden in cyberspace by creating false clones of personal information, which are stored and executed via one's iCloud ID. The patent is meant to throw government agencies and big businesses off the scent of individual, private American citizens.
This is really wild stuff, Patently Apple wrote.
The patent blends themes from George Orwell's 1984, the 1999 sci-fi movie The Matrix, where fooling the bots of your presence was an everyday means of survival, and even the 1982 movie 'Blade Runner,' where the Master Cloner invents a method of implanting false memories into clones so as to provide them with a confident self-image.
A Thousand Little Brothers
In his novel 1984, Orwell, writing in the late 1940s, predicted that the government would invade individuals' privacy to the extent that Big Brother could hear and see everything everyone did, even in their own homes. In 2012, it may not be the government tracking our every move, but the digital age has introduced thousands of Little Brothers, all taking bits of pieces of personal information that could easily be accumulated and combined with other data to give a complete picture about a user. Data monitoring isn't the same as camera surveillance; it could be worse.
The misuse of personal information ranges from major security breaches (see: LinkedIn, Path) to simple but creepy product marketing techniques (see: Facebook). Generally, however, users are growing more concerned with the accessibility of their personal information on the Internet. Between Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a multitude of other digital platforms, Internet users have nowhere to hide.
Averting Orwell's Nightmare
Apple, while it is surely a big business itself, says it believes American citizens have the right to privacy, especially as sharing personal, confidential information is becoming more commonplace on the Internet. But instead of attempting to thwart data collection entirely, Apple's technique relates to overloading the electronic profiling systems that try to collect your personal information. When the system thinks it's processing your identity, Apple's solution creates false clones with false areas of interest and false actions. It's all designed to pollute the eavesdroppers' networks and make it seem almost impossible to know which is the real user's identity.
How does it work? Once your identity has been cloned and assigned its own fake confidential information -- including email accounts, phone numbers, mailing addresses and even areas of interest -- Apple's system associates the fake interests with other divergent interests to make the fake identity seem consistent. For instance, if your true interest is photography in nature, your clone may be interested in nature itself, like sunsets and oceans. The interests are also then translated into fake actions taken by the user, such as online purchases, to make the clone seem like a completely legitimate person that exists on the Internet.
When it all works together, network searches, banner ads, e-mails, surveys, interactive chats, and goods and services are redirected to the fake identity, keeping the principal user's identity safe and secure. But thanks to the algorithms that routinely find divergent interests, the fake profiles are extremely convincing: Information like one's birth date, marital status, hair color, gender, income level and children information is substantial enough so eavesdroppers believe the clone is the principal user.
By incorporating consistent areas of interest with the principal into the cloned identity, the interests of the principal are feathered into the cloned identity so that the cloned identity is more believable to eavesdroppers that are attempting to perform dataveillance on the principal, Patently Apple explains. The divergent areas of interest work to pollute the dataveillance.
A second method describes a cloning agent, which accesses data linked to areas of interest for the clone identity to perform particular actions associated with that false identity. The process can be stopped if the system senses the real user is active on the network -- which makes it nearly impossible to distinguish online identities -- but it can continually add new areas of interest in response to actions, and perform subsequent actions in return. Therefore, it's a self-perpetuating process that builds a fake identity around real actions. Even though the method is slightly different, the bottom line is the same: The cloned identity substantially disrupts the data collection process by unwanted eavesdroppers.
Is Apple Hurting Itself?
It seems a little counterintuitive: If data collection ultimately makes Apple more money, why is Apple the one throwing in the monkey wrench?
Firstly, there's the obvious explanation: Apple's first major commercial for the Macintosh, which ran during the 1984 Super Bowl, portrayed IBM as a company trying to dominate the personal computers market. IBM, or Big Blue as it was often referred to, had become a colorless, faceless company that only sought to dominate the market (see: world). In that same commercial, Apple portrayed itself as a rebellious young woman, outrunning IBM's Thought Police, and chucking a sledgehammer into a screen that showed Big Brother delivering a mind-controlling speech. Apple is simply getting back to its roots with this latest patent.
Apple can play the corporate game as well as anyone -- have you seen how many patent lawsuits these guys file? -- but the privacy issue is an entirely different beast altogether. Privacy is an issue that companies can't afford to be on the wrong side with, especially since it's such a sensitive topic.
American society has feared Big Brother since 1949 -- Orwell's idea, of course -- but nobody wants to live in a world where they fear their every action will do them harm. In this way, Apple realizes that it must stand with the people on this issue. Gathering and acquiring user data is important, but it's more important that users know when they're volunteering their data, and when they're not.
It should be interesting to see if and how Apple unveils this clone-making technology, but Patently Apple reports that it's already in use, used in a number of Novell network and server products. In addition, Apple is listed as an assignee of the technology; the inventor, Stephen R. Carter, has previously licensed the technology to other network and server companies like Novell.
The patent may be anti-corporate, but it's much more than that. Small, online companies have every reason in the world to leverage user data for profit; this acts as a safeguard so dataveillance isn't abused. If the patent technology is well-executed, Apple's cloning methods may be the only thing standing between the American people and the Thought Police.