Apple invented a new type of viral advertising that can track users in social media

Tim Cook Apple CEOStephen Lam/Getty Images‘They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it. We think that’s wrong.’

Apple has been granted a patent for a new viral advertising management system that can track ads or media content as it is shared via different methods, such as email, texts and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The patent also says that it can store users’ names, addresses, and age in a database.

This does not mean that Apple is going to launch a viral advertising product — the company has a long history of focusing on devices and apps, not advertising. Nor does it mean that Apple is going to start tracking your consumption of social media.

But it is interesting that Apple is even thinking about the topic, given the company’s recent renewed interest in increasing its advertising business. Here is the context:

Apple’s new viral ad tracking method — in theory — could be used in iAd. The system proposes to gather data about people who share ads or content with their friends from Apple devices:

The UUID database 235 can also contain demographic data associated with each entry in the UUID database 235. For example, demographic data can include a user’s name, address, age, likes, dislikes, previous history, etc. The demographic data can be received from a user of a user device 215 or inferred from data collected by the content delivery server 205. For example, user likes and dislikes can be inferred from a user’s previous requests for invitational content and user interaction with the invitational content.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment but have not heard back, yet.

Apple files a lot of patents simply because it wants to own the technology and prevent others from using it. Most patents do not become products. And just because the patent has the ability to track user data does not mean Apple will actually do that.

Usually, advertisers and publishers go to lengths to avoid dealing in unique identifying information. They would rather that data be “hashed” (meaning re-coded in a random way to make it anonymous), and tracked in aggregate as bundled statistics, until they actually make a purchase on a web site.

But it’s ironic that that Apple now has a method of tracking users across multiple devices and in multiple media after CEO Tim Cook made a series of speeches in which he criticised Facebook and Google for doing exactly that. “Some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it. We think that’s wrong,” he told an audience in Washington D.C. recently.

Apple says its new viral “invitational” ad tracker is “an improved method of implementing a viral campaign.”

This is how Apple believes an ad with an invitation to “share this” with your friends might appear on a phone or desktop, as part of a newsfeed stream:

Apple envisions a suite of sharing buttons that would allow the user to share the ad on Facebook or Twitter, or email, or by text:

A chart of how an advertiser might manage a budget promoting the campaign:

This schematic flow chart shows that each time the ad is forwarded, it would generate a unique identifier, allowing the advertiser to track the success of the ad:

When the link to the ad is received by one of your friends, this is the tracking decision tree that Apple proposes:

Here’s a diagram of the hardware and circuitry on the device needed to support the ad:

How Apple sees those devices sitting within the viral ad ecosystem:

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