Being Watched While You Watch TV: What’s So Creepy?

Would you bring a camera that watched you as you watched TV into your living room?

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Intel‘s announcement that it’ll sell an Internet television device later this year isn’t much of a surprise given the rumor mill’s lead-up, nor is it particularly thrilling, given its backward-looking lack of a la carte programming and fuzzy intimations about channel curation, which may or may not amount to better deals than various cable or satellite ones. But here’s the part you probably weren’t expecting: Intel’s device will also be a camera capable of watching you as you watch TV.

No, not just a camera you might use to video-chat with friends and family or wave your hands in the air like Mickey in Fantasia to issue commands, but a synthetic eye into your living room that Intel will reportedly use to pick you (and others) out of a lineup so it can further annoy us with targeted advertising or “personalize” our experience. In that sense, you could think of it as a kind of first step toward the giant digital screens Tom Cruise wanders by in Minority Report — the ones that notice who he is, then start hawking products like telepathic barkers. (No doubt advertisers saw that movie and had exactly the opposite reaction the rest of us did.)

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Intel has stressed in interviews that the camera’s ability to watch you will be optional — that you can close a shutter if you’d rather not be scrutinized. But the timing of the announcement is intriguing because of what Microsoft appears to be up to with the next version of its Xbox Kinect camera-based motion detection system. Last November, the company filed a patent for a camera that’d be capable of scanning a group of people watching a video. Kinect isn’t named in the patent specifically, but it’s not stretching to see the dotted line.

Assuming that Kinect link, implementing the patent — for “content distribution regulation by viewing user” — as described could have interesting implications. Imagine a scenario in which you’ve paid for up to four people to watch a movie, but invited a few more, and your Xbox Kinect detects five or six in viewing range: Maybe the system disables the feed and instructs you to boot the freeloaders — or just pay for them — before resuming play. Disable the camera or jam a piece of tape in the lens and it might throw up error messages, or just go into lockdown. If Microsoft’s next Xbox comes with this technology integrated and required, there’d be no way to escape its imperious gaze — you’d either play by Microsoft’s rules or have to forego buying the system outright.

Questions about what you should or shouldn’t be able to do in your home aside, that would make Microsoft’s patent “literally Orwellian,” according to New York Law School technologist and professor James Grimmelman in a recent Marketplace Tech interview. “It’s the telescreen, the TV that watches you as you’re watching it. I mean, I have trouble believing that any copyright owner would actually use it, because it’s so creepy.”

It is creepy when you think of it like that. But let’s give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s not auditioning for the part of Big Brother in a massively multiplayer reality TV version of George Orwell’s 1984. This particular patent could simply be a “what if” grab (as so many are). Corporations tend not to view patents as “Is this a good or a bad thing for consumers?” but more like “Is someone going to grab this before we do?” A lot of this stuff just sits on shelves, gathering intellectual dust — we may never see it, in other words. Perhaps Microsoft, like Intel, would simply offer you an option to slide a cover over the camera and “opt-out.”

My guess is that Microsoft, like Intel, is thinking more about stuff like targeted advertising and experience personalization, which we’re already living with any time we use services like Facebook or Gmail. Advertising’s an inevitable part of a consumer economy. Much of that economy’s shifting online, which is why we’re seeing physical junk mail on the decline. And just as the banking system came up with “creative financing” to get around lending regulations, companies are going to exploit every advertising avenue in the race to secure our patronage. Right or wrong, good or bad, it’s how the system’s wired.

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The difference today, of course, is that with a web browser, we can employ third-party tools to scrub ads, pop-ups and offensive auto-play videos from our online experience (or just fast-forward through the commercials in a DVR’d show). I routinely use browser extensions like AdBlock, ClickToFlash, Facebook Cleaner and JavaScript Blacklist, for instance, and pre-record most of my TV shows, in part so I can blow through the ads.

But with proprietary cameras in our living rooms, there’d be no third-party tools to cleanse our systems (well, beyond the odd jailbreak, and how many ordinary users are going to keep up with that never-ending oneupmanship game?). Perhaps you’d just be able to shutter the camera, as Intel suggests, but looking down the road, what kinds of features might Intel or Microsoft lock away — and not necessarily just the camera-related ones — to incentivize you to leave it on?

For ages, companies have been getting around thorny consumer choice issues by bundling features we don’t want with ones we can’t live without. Microsoft stripped free multiplayer from its Xbox 360 at launch, for instance, in defiance of industry conventions that remain today on every competing platform. Five dollars a month isn’t so much, and Microsoft offers enough behind-the-paywall content that most players seem to view it as justified, but it’s the idea that we’re gradually being cattle-driven to suit Microsoft’s idea of what the “norm” should be, our only vote being not to buy in at all.

I worry about what these cameras might wind up doing behind the scenes, whether initially or eventually. No doubt the book-length usage agreements everyone skips to the end and “agrees” to (the alternative being to use these things as very expensive and awkward-looking paperweights) would include legal language allowing the gathering and/or sharing of whatever metrics these companies feels entitled to assemble. How often do you sit or stand? Are you smiling or frowning while you play? Do you yell a lot? What kinds of things do you say? Eat or drink? Lays or Doritos? Coke or Pepsi? What sort of couch or chair do you sit in? Do you play in boxers or briefs? I’m shooting the paranoid fantasist’s moon here, mind you — I can’t imagine Microsoft or Intel collecting any of that out of the gate — but like I said earlier, this stuff tends to happen not all at once but gradually. It’s an acclimation process whereby companies try to make the carrot more enticing than the stick. Imagine what we might’ve said even six or seven years ago about the prospect of a camera in our living rooms that would “watch” us and make decisions about what we could or couldn’t do based on what it “sees.”

There’s a sense of inevitability about the tech industry, this idea that whatever comes next is just the way it always had to be, like the Panglossian aphorism “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” — a notion French writer Voltaire had such fun rending to pieces in Candide two-and-a-half centuries ago. That said, my mind’s not closed to the notion that a camera in my living room might improve my experience by identifying who I am and bringing up my custom profile dynamically. I’m also not opposed to the idea that targeted advertising could be an improvement over today’s crude spam-vertising (some pretty big “ifs” there, of course). But I think it’s absolutely reasonable to be skeptical and concerned about the potential for misuse here. We’re talking about technology that’ll eventually be sophisticated enough to tell if we’re happy or sad and angry or wistful, after all. Companies like Intel and Microsoft may believe they’re just fighting a public relations battle, but that rests on the assumption that trading away yet more of our privacy for these little conveniences is really for the best, in the long run.

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