It’s not just the federal government that wants to spy on us

The Obama Administration is rightfully taking a lot of hits for government surveillance programs that track data related to every phone call of every U.S. citizen and for demanding data that the computers of Google, Apple and other information technology companies collect from everyone.

Now we’re learning that the government isn’t the only one that wants to spy on us.

Big telecommunications companies have developed technology that embeds infrared cameras and microphones into cable boxes and digital video recorders (DVR). They want to put these devices in the homes of people, turn the cameras and microphones on, have computers watch and listen, and then broadcast TV commercials targeted to the activities and conversations that viewers have while they watch TV.  If a family is eating Mexican food in front of a baseball game, they suddenly might see the most interesting man in the world quaffing a Dos Equis.  If the viewers are talking about going to a movie, a TV ad for the latest James Bond flick might suddenly appear. Unless, of course, it’s pre-teen girls, in which case the ad could be for the latest Disney princess movie.

Last year Verizon filed a patent application for a monitoring system that would determine what commercials to broadcast viewers based on their behavior when watching the boob tube.  Verizon boasted in its patent documents that the system could even detect moods. The patent office rejected the patent application, but all that means is that if Verizon started installing it on its equipment, other telecommunication companies could copy the system without paying Verizon any royalties. Verizon could still implement the technology.

Verizon isn’t the only big data company that wants its eyes and ears to become part of your family.  Microsoft filed a patent application in 2011 for yet another consumer surveillance system.

The worst case scenario for this invasion of privacy is if a couple gets turned on by an on-screen kiss and begins to undress each other with the TV still on. Will an ad for condoms come up? Or maybe one from an anti-choice group? Will the video of your love-making be available to the National Security Administration?

To prevent this obnoxious corporate spying on our private lives, Representatives Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced the “We Are Watching You Act of 2013” in Congress last week. If passed, the law would allow consumers to opt out of monitoring altogether at any time. If a viewer allowed monitoring, the company would have to clearly display “We are watching you” on the TV screen.  Already an industry expert at the influential consulting firm Gartner is complaining that the “We are watching you” legend would take up too much space on the smaller screens of laptops, tablets and smart phones.

While I applaud Capuano and Jones for wanting to protect consumers, wouldn’t it be safer for our freedom if these systems were just outlawed?  We all know that companies virtually always make opt-in, opt-out protocols as confusing as possible. For example, my bank recently sent me a brochure telling me about opt-out options that would prevent it from using or selling my data. The brochure came with the regular bank statement, folded to look like one of those bill-stuffer ads that many of us throw out without looking (which is what my significant other did and then had to fish out of the trash when I told her what it was). The bank asked depositors to complete and mail a form to opt-out of some information sharing and to make a phone call to opt-out of a different set of information sharing. The way the information was presented on the page made it very easy for people to think that you could either phone or mail in a form and that you didn’t need to do both. Of course, there was no return postage for the opt-out form.

Corporate America is selling us a lot of stuff right now, even with the old-fashioned method of analyzing the demographics of the audiences of TV shows.  I don’t think they need any more help in this area. Forget the opt. Just make it illegal.

One thought on “It’s not just the federal government that wants to spy on us

  1. “Forget the opt. Just make it illegal.” That would be the ideal, but I doubt it’ll ever happen. A more realistic (and almost as effective) solution would be to make any data “sharing” (mining?) to be optional, with the customer having to specifically opt-in to enable it. And it must be made very obvious what one is opting into, and that it is NOT required to obtain service (lest the “opt-in” become a tiny, probably pre-ticked checkbox buried among the others that one reflexively agrees to without reading while completing applications).

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