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PATENT DROP: Microsoft off the clock
Plus: Okta’s security chain; Meta wants you to collab
Happy Monday and welcome to Patent Drop!
Today, we’re checking out a patent from Microsoft that aims to track off-the-clock workaholics, Okta’s plan to (block)chain down security protocols, and Meta’s intent to make social media stories more collaborative.
Let's dive in.
#1. Microsoft’s work-life balancer
Microsoft wants to know what you’re getting up to in your 5-to-9 after your 9-to-5.
The company is seeking to patent a method of “tracking sources of after-hours activity” in communication apps. Microsoft’s system relies on a log that stores information about the timing, receiver, and sender of an “event” — anything from meetings, emails, calls, and tasks assigned on a deadline — sent on a communication platform during a defined after-hours work period. The system then cross-references these events with organizational data, such as department, title or location.
Microsoft’s system organizes all of this information on a dashboard that’s continually updated, aiming to identify which groups in an organization are logging the most after-hours communications.
If this system determines that a user or group is logging an excessive amount of after-hours communication (aka, consistently bugging other employees off the clock), it will modify how the platform operates during those hours. For example, this system may add pop-up warnings before sending events, delay communication until the receiver’s after-hours period is over, or disable the user from sending after-hours communication entirely. The more after-hours events a user has racked up, the “more dramatic modification” they get.
Microsoft said this system aims to essentially eliminate work peer pressure, or when one user’s after-hours activity triggers that of another user. If the employer doesn’t know that work is happening after work hours, that “puts the onus of change on the users working during the after-hours period and fails to identify or address what is triggering these users to work during their after-hours period.”
With the rise of remote work, companies have become even more reliant on connectivity tools like Microsoft’s suite, which has long had a stronghold on the workplace and productivity tools market. The company’s productivity and business processes unit brought in $17.5 billion in revenue in the most recent quarter, up 11% year-over-year, and made up roughly a third of its total revenue. Google’s Workspace suite, by comparison, takes up only a small fraction of the productivity tools market share.
Forcing employees back to an office full-time likely isn’t the answer: One survey from Remote.co found that 63% of the 1,100 employees surveyed would look for a new job if they couldn’t continue to work remotely, while 79% name work-life balance as a top factor in evaluating job opportunities. Microsoft’s tech could provide a solution for both issues, allowing employees to continue working from home while ensuring that their monitors can power down when the clock strikes five.
While this patent is seemingly an attempt to refortify the work-life boundary, the question of whether or not employees will be comfortable with this level of tracking still remains. This tech leans on a vast amount of continuously updated work-related data, requiring employees to give up certain privacies in the name of improved work-life balance.
Like any monitoring technology, adoption may depend on how much convenience it can offer. Similar to how Baidu and Airbus are working on up-close tracking for physical safety purposes, employees’ comfort with this level of monitoring would likely hinge on how much of a benefit a system like this could promise.
#2. Okta’s Web 3.0 security
Okta may be adding some chains to its cybersecurity approach.
The company filed a patent application for a technique to deliver one-time passwords via blockchain for multi-factor authentication. To generate and distribute one-time passwords, this tech employs a “decentralized secure repository,” or essentially a blockchain-based digital storage unit that’s made up of different systems controlled by multiple organizations. In order for an attacker to breach this repository and tamper with the password system, they’d need to get through the systems of multiple organizations, Okta noted.
To receive this password, a user has to verify their identity in some way (though Okta didn’t go into detail on how). Once they’re verified, they receive an “authentication token” that allows them access to the repository server and get the password.
The one-time password is double-encrypted, locked down both within the repository and when transmitted between systems, thereby “thwarting attempts at eavesdropping. The repository itself also comes with enhanced security features by virtue of being a blockchain-based system, including “tamper-proofness,” or the inability to modify data within it, and auditability, aka the power to see any activity involving the data.
Okta said that conventional means of delivering one-time passwords come with a number of shortcomings, including a lack of encryption and a loss of privacy when delivered over text or email, as those systems can easily be compromised by outside attackers.
These systems also “typically lack a way to determine when users' one-time passwords have been used, thus preventing users from determining whether unauthorized parties have managed to gain access to the system and obtain one-time passwords in their names,” Okta noted.
Given Okta’s core business is cybersecurity and identity management, it adds up that the company is researching new ways to keep client logins secure. But Okta has had its own run-ins with cybersecurity breakdowns in the past year.
The company faced three separate security breaches in 2022: one in March, by the notorious Lapsus$ hacking group; one in August, in which hackers used Twilio to intercept Okta one-time passwords; and one in December, in which its source code was stolen from GitHub repositories. While this tech could be served up as a service for its own customers, the company may want ways to batten down its own hatches.
However, the tech that Okta outlines in its patent seems like just the beginning, said Jordan Gutt, head of web 3.0 technologies at The Glimpse Group. Gutt said that the patent could foreshadow a deeper interest in self-sovereign identity, a type of identity management that gives users or organizations complete control over their digital identity, and has blockchain as a core tenet. (The company currently partners with Entrustient for this type of identity tech).
“On an enterprise level, it's great to see them leveraging the benefits of blockchain like immutability and the distributed ledger,” said Gutt. “But this seems like a foundation to other products that Okta could be working on.”
And while the tech in this patent covers the creation and delivery of the password, it doesn’t seem to cover how it protects the password “once it gets into the user’s hands,” said Ali Allage, CEO of BlueSteel Cybersecurity. Often, security breaches involving one-time passwords aren’t related to failures of the password delivery system itself, Allage said, but rather failures on the client side.
For now, Allage said, “It’s just a highly encrypted way of storing one-time passwords. I think it's progress. I don't think it's the end result.”
#3. Meta gets collaborative
Sharing is caring. And according to Meta, that counts for social media, too.
The company wants to patent a system for “collaborative stories.” As the name implies, this tech allows users to add multiple other users to be collaborators on a shared story, enabling anyone invited to share photos and videos to it.
These story posts are viewable to anyone that follows any of the accounts that are collaborators. Users can also follow the collaborative stories themselves, and can request to collaborate. Meta said this helps users gain access to a “larger audience than any single user may reach.” If a user’s account is private, they are notified before posting to the story that their content can be viewed publicly.
The Facebook and Instagram parent company noted that this feature is helpful for users' shared topics, events and experiences. For example, if a group of friends take a trip together, those users can create a shared story that they all add to throughout the trip, so that they don’t need to tag one another in story posts, and don’t need to all repost the same images to their own story. Or if a group of users all have dogs, they may start a collaborative story to show off their pets, and users can request to be collaborators if that shared story gains traction.
The company also said this feature could help users feel less nervous about posting, as it circumvents the “one-to-many relationship” of conventional social media platforms. “Users may wish to share content, but may be hesitant to share content by themselves, in some examples discouraging users from creating and sharing content at all,” Meta noted.
This isn’t Meta’s first attempt at getting users to work together. The company launched a collaborative posting feature in late 2021 that allows two users to create feed posts and reels together, so that the same photo surfaces to the top of each user's profile. Adding this capability to story posts – and expanding it to allow more than just two users – could be the platform’s next addition to its collaboration tools.
There could be a few reasons Meta is trying to cultivate a more collective experience, one of which the company notes in the filing: Posting on Instagram can be intimidating, and “individual users may be fearful of judgment when sharing content,” Meta noted. The less users post, the less engagement the platform as a whole gets.
And while this tech isn’t explicitly a copycat of any TikTok feature, the company is constantly fighting for relevance against the short-form video behemoth. Collaboration could be its plan to break down the barrier of posting anxiety and boost engagement as a whole.
Another potential reason for this tech, however, is brand partnerships. Instagram has long been working on features to facilitate brand-to-creator collaborations. Adding a way for brands to work with a creator on stories just gives both parties another tool in the toolbox (and another reason to pick Instagram over rival platforms like TikTok).
All this said, collaboration tools are likely just a piece of the much larger engagement puzzle: Holding onto user engagement in any form it comes is vital to feed the beast that is Meta’s digital advertising business.
A few others before you go.
Starbucks wants you to drink green. The company wants to patent a system for generating recommendations to “purchase sustainable items,” which are labeled as such based on the “ingredients that are used to create the particular food and beverages.”
Snap wants to let your avatar chit-chat. The company is seeking to patent an “avatar call platform” which displays your avatar instead of you on a video call, and “moves in a way that matches what the caller is saying.”
Zoom wants to make sure you’re paying attention. The company is seeking to patent a method for “real-time engagement analytics” in meetings, including tracking how many participants ask for real-time notes to be generated.
What else is new?
The Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit against Google by Genius Media Group that alleged the search giant has stolen millions of song lyrics.
Amazon is planning to invest $15 billion more in India by 2030, with the funds largely earmarked for AWS expansion. The company has invested $11 billion to date in upping its services in the country.
IBM is acquiring software company Apptio for $4.6 billion. The purchase marks IBM’s seventh acquisition this year as it speeds toward its AI and cloud technology business transformation.