Illustration: Ashley Siebels
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Facebook patents technology to predict whether you’re rich or poor

We already know that Facebook is watching us very closely. Tracking our online activity on its social network and off of it, Facebook learns more about us each day, collecting data points about our age, location, gender, language spoken, field of study, school, ethnic affinity, income, and net worth, among many other factors, according to its ad targeting options.

Now, with its new patent, Facebook is signaling that it wants to go one step further and make predictions about our socioeconomic class.

Facebook patent seeks to determine user’s socioeconomic class

Filed in 2016 and published in February, the patent application calls its technology a “SOCIOECONOMIC GROUP CLASSIFICATION BASED ON USER FEATURES.” The patent said it aims to help third parties like advertisers “increase awareness about products or services to online system users.”

By collecting and analyzing datasets on a user’s travel history, internet usage, homeownership status, and the number of tech devices owned, the classification system makes predictions on Facebook users’ socioeconomic status.

Do you trust Facebook with your user data?

Although Facebook is known for its comprehensive consumer profile, it is also known for making flawed predictions with its datasets. The social media giant’s sophisticated ad targeting tool came under fire recently for how it was allegedly making decisions about its users’ job eligibility based on their age. The ProPublica-New York Times investigation found that employers like Amazon and Goldman Sachs were using Facebook to create recruitment ads that targeted only younger job seekers, excluding older job seekers from seeing them. Facebook vice president of ads Rob Goldman defended his company by saying that, “age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice.”

Before we start dreaming up dystopian hierarchies of what Facebook feeds can do with socioeconomic status data, it’s important to recognize that a patent does not guarantee a technology’s commercial release. This socioeconomic predictor tool may end up never being produced. Facebook said it files more than 1,000 patent applications every year. But this patent does serve as a signal as to the company’s future. By pouring time and resources into patent 20180032883, Facebook is signaling that it thinks it is appropriate to predict your social status — even if these predictions feel invasive or have the potential to be inaccurate.

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