Sunday, January 12, 2014

Facebook US Patent 8,627,506: a blunder or strategic omission?

The vagueness of Facebook patent claims keeps surprising me. Take, for example, their latest one: US 8,627,506 "Providing privacy settings for applications associated with a user profile," (Inventors: Nico Vera, James Wang, Arieh Steinberg, Chris Kelly, and Adam D'Angelo).

The patent is supposed to cover a transfer of user private information to third party apps based on friendship relationships (social graph) in a social networking system. I wanted to use the invention to illustrate the concept of "aboutness" in our system model (Scalable Innovation, Chapter 5).

Even a brief system analysis of the claims shows that the third party app does not provide any definite information about the second user to the social networking system, i.e. a key "aboutness" element is simply missing. Only in claim 4 we find a vague statement about a second user "who is connected to the [first] user in the social networking system." We don't know the nature of the connection, nor the degree of connectedness. Maybe she is a direct connection, or maybe she is one of the billion people on Facebook. Who knows...

Since the social networking system doesn't know much about the second user, it can either give out all private data or no data at all. In short, according to the patent, where third party apps are concerned privacy is non-existent; the apps are entitled to receive the first user's entire social graph. Using this graph, they can fish for other users' social graphs, and so on.

Let's give the patent the benefit of the doubt and assume that it tries to cover a minimally useful configuration with no privacy. Then, there should be at least one dependent claim that describes what information about the second user is required to determine the amount of private data transferred to a third-party app. Unfortunately, no such claim exists in the patent.

Some people believe that such vagueness — they often confuse it with broadness — is harmless. But is it? Imagine that a patent troll looks up Facebook patent applications when they are just published and files a patent application that covers a scenario with a more specific privacy information exchange. When the troll gets its patent issued, it can sue Facebook for damages because in a real social networking system specific "aboutness" for the second user has to be exchanged to determine privacy boundaries. As a result, Facebook is going to be rightfully punished for sloppiness and vagueness in its patent portfolio.

Complaining about trolls and software patents is easy. Getting your patent house in order is more difficult.

tags: system, aboutness, patent, invention, social, networking

System-level notes: at the highest level a third party app is the Source; information request is the Packaged Payload; the module that evaluates privacy settings is the Tool. The patent is missing Distribution, Aboutness, and Control.

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