Facebook is getting slammed from all sides at the moment. Over the past 24 hours or so, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff compared the company’s negative side with the addictive potential of cigarettes. We learned that Apple CEO Tim Cook’s comments about privacy have rankled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for years. And a massive New York Times investigation has cast Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in a supremely negative light.

But when you’re the biggest social network on the planet, the show must go on — and, indeed, a new patent shows Facebook may be about to take its data mining capabilities to a new level.

The company filed a patent application in May that was published today and lays out details of an algorithm that looks at things in a photograph, like faces, and uses such data to build out a profile of a household. This could potentially make it easier to target ads at an entire family.

Explains The Verge in a piece today, “Facebook can already analyze lots of information to tell who’s in the same household. According to Marketing Land, it checks the relationships people list on their profiles, whether people list the same last names or locations, and shared life events or event check-ins, among other things.

“The system described in the new patent would involve an even more sophisticated level of data mining. The proposed model would cross-reference details from photographs with tags, descriptions, the poster’s IP address, the list of Facebook users using that same address, and potentially other details. From this, Facebook could deduce how many people were in the household, alongside various demographic information.”

Information, of course, that an advertiser would love.

Some important caveats: First, the standard disclaimer that companies file patents all the time that they never act on. Second, as The Verge’s piece notes, the wording in the patent application is somewhat broad. “The description touts a way to hyper-target users based on household size, household member characteristics, shared interests, which household members use which electronic devices, and whether those users are Facebook members.” To be sure, it might end up using the technology outlined in the patent for something other than ad purposes.

The company frequently leaves lots of wiggle room and puts out vague language along these lines. When it comes to the recently launched Facebook Portal video chat device intended for the home, the company has hinted that it will use data — from Portal calls, for example — to target ads on other platforms. The new patent is clear, though, that it would only cover photos posted by users — not video or private message content. For now, we’ll have to wait and see whether Facebook is cooking up yet another way to target ads to its massive user base.

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