The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded Apple a patent for a social network designed to fight stalking and spamming of its members.
The patent governs a method for ensuring consistency in a "friend service database" -- also known as a social network. The integrity of records within the system would be maintained by comparing three databases -- one for people within the network, one for people outside the network and one used to resolve conflicts between the other two.
Within the system, "friend" activity is analyzed to determine whether someone communicating with a person is a stalker or a spammer. If someone tries to friend you, for example, and you reject that request, then a "stalker counter" on that person's database record rises by one.
"When the stalker count reaches a specified threshold...no more friend requests are permitted from the second user to the first user," the patent says. "If the second user attempts to send a friend request to the first user, he/she may receive a message indicating that no more friend requests to the first user are permitted."
A similar counter would be set up to spot spammers. Every time you send a friend request to someone, the spam counter on your database record is increased by one. If the spam counter reaches a certain threshold in a specific time period, the system won't allow you to send friend requests until the time period ends.
For example, the system could limit you to 100 friend requests in a 24-hour period. If you reach 100 before the end of 24 hours, your friend request privileges will be suspended until the 24-hour period ends. At that point, the spam counter is reset to zero and you can start requesting friends again.
The effectiveness of targeting stalkers may be limited, however, because it assumes a potential stalker is a stranger. "What we know about stalking, in general, is that it most often occurs between people who already know each other," Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center in Washington, D.C. said in an interview.
Stalkers can be friends, co-workers, classmates, someone from a relationship or a relative, she said.
"Most often, ...when we do see stalking occurring via social networking sites it's among people who already have those established relationships," Garcia said.
Social networks have made efforts to address the privacy issues of members, including giving users better control over who sees their information, as well as educating them about how to safely use social media.
Those measures, though, have drawbacks, according to Julie Spira, CEO of Social Media and More and a cyber relationships expert.
"They do have systems in place," she said in an interview. "They're just not that easy to find."
While there was stalking before there were social networks, social networks can add to a stalker's repertoire. "They add more tools to the stalker's toolbox to make it easier," she said.
As with all patents, just because a company patents a technology doesn't mean it will end up in a product.
Apple did not respond to a request to comment.