Intel’s Attention-Tracking Patent Could Be a Privacy Problem

While Intel pitches this as a way to save power, it could have greater privacy implications depending on what it tracks.

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Intel wants to track your wandering eyes. 

The company wants to patent a system for a “user attention-based user experience.” This system pays attention to when you’re not paying attention to help design devices with “power savings in mind.” 

Intel’s system uses gesture and body recognition sensors to determine whether a user is paying attention to the screen in front of them. This involves quite a bit of personal tracking: For example, Intel’s system may track head movement, body posture, eye gaze and movement. “As the user moves their head to face to or away from the computer, control is transitioned through the various states,” Intel noted. 

If the system deems that you’re not paying attention, it will disable certain functions to “reduce power or reduce processing resources.” For example, this system may put a device into sleep mode, or turn off audio input or output when it detects that a user has stopped paying attention. By powering off certain subsystems, Intel says this tech can extend the battery life of a device. 

Intel noted that this system could be implemented into a wide array of devices, including personal devices such as laptops, smartphones, televisions and tablets, as well as not-so-personal devices, such as an “in-vehicle infotainment system, vending machine, kiosk, in-store digital signage, or other compute device having one or more screens.”

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Intel makes the case in this patent that its goal is to save power for personal computing. Given its position in the PC market, this adds up: Intel’s Client Computing Group made up the bulk of its revenue  – around $7.9 billion in the most recent quarter – and held more than 68% of the CPU market share in the second quarter. 

But a patent like this poses some interesting privacy challenges. On one hand, if a personal device only works for the person that is meant to look at it, that could create a powerful tool to prevent wandering eyes from watching your screen. 

However, a growing trend in personal computing and workplace tech patents is Big Tech firms are interested in tracking their users in new ways. (Just look at Microsoft’s patents for things like tone suggestion in emails and off-the-clock working monitors.) If tech like this is capable of tracking how long a user is – and isn’t – paying attention to the work in front of them, it could add an additional layer of monitoring to a work computer that users find invasive. 

The implications for privacy also stretch beyond the workplace. As the patent mentions, this could be implemented into a number of public screens, such as digital signage or kiosks. If this can track exactly how long people spend looking at those screens, Intel may have a powerful way to track public engagement with digital advertising.