Near the beginning of the novel 1984, Winston Smith is in his apartment, doing his state-mandated exercises in front of the TV. Suddenly a voice blares from the speaker and reprimands him for not making more of an effort. We learn at that moment that the telescreen is a two-way device; it watches you as you’re watching it.
Now we call that machine Kinect for XBOX Live.
Some of this is old news in privacy circles; it was more than a year ago that Microsoft first bragged to investors that the Kinect platform could be used to gather data on people using their product — what people are wearing, and things like that. This is what happens when you have a Web-cam in the house that’s always connected to the Internet, and someone you don’t know is on the other end.
Well, as you might expect, these revelations raised quite a kerfuffle. Microsoft very quickly and very loudly promised not to use data gathered through the camera in your home for targeted advertising. In the articles I read, journalists took two approaches:
- Whew! I’m sure glad Microsoft promised not to be evil!
- You know, targeted advertising isn’t as bad a people keep claiming. Relax and get information tailored to you.
The commentary, and Microsoft’s reassurances, miss the point entirely. With the government pulling flagrant rights violations like National Security Letters, how long before the video feed in your living room is handed over to the FBI? Hell, it might have happened already. Microsoft would be legally barred from telling anyone it even happened. This is the state of our constitution these days.
(If the government really thinks this is all cool and the public wouldn’t mind, why do they work so hard to keep it secret?)
There are ways to prevent the video feed from reaching the outside world, but as I understand it, the default is always on. Not only can it report what game (or political convention) you’re watching, it can report when you cheer. Better think twice about that Che Guevara poster on the far wall from the TV. My video-game playing, dope-smoking neighbors may not be too concerned about privacy anyway (judging by the clouds drifting through the neighborhood), but I doubt they’d feel great about knowing they have a live video feed that any government monkey with a frightening letter will be able to watch.
Let me repeat that just so I’m clear: Any government monkey with a frightening letter will have access to a live video feed from your living room, as well as every email you’ve ever sent and what you checked out at the library. Things are bad enough without handing them the most invasive tool yet to pry into your lives.
I would LOVE to see a big company like Microsoft stand up to the government and publish a policy that states that they will not surrender the feed without a legal warrant signed by a judge. The chances of that actually happening are zero — unless Microsoft thinks it’s losing a very large amount of business due to those privacy concerns. That’s not an indictment of Microsoft, I doubt any major US corporation is ready to go to the mat with the Feds on this one.
Microsoft once more finds itself in the very familiar position of creating something that sounds really cool without considering all the consequences, much like when they put into Microsoft Office a system specifically tailored for adding executable code to Office documents. Office automation, they called it. A great time-saver. “Capital idea!” shouted the virus writers with glee. Now once more Microsoft has come up with something that is almost magic in how it works (e.g., parental controls based on the metrics of the people in the room), but those things require the camera to be on, even when you’re just watching TV.
If someone gave me a free Kinect and XBOX, I’d probably use it. But I’d be very, very careful about when the Internet connection is active. And, while exercising I’ll be sure to give it my all.