J JamesGames.com Privacy concerns about the new Xbox One

Privacy concerns about the new Xbox One

Is Big Brother Watching?
By: James Oppenheim | Created: 2013-05-23 11:19:37 | (Updated: 0000-00-00 00:00:00)
Though science-fiction usually portrays Big Brother as a manifestation of governmental totalitarianism, the reality is that in the Internet age, as often as not, we give up our privacy without much thought to corporate entities in exchange for the right to use their products and services. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg: Sharing is the new norm.

It isn't that our rights are being taken away from us as much as we are just giving them away. When aggregated, web-monitors probably know more things about you than even your closest friends. Yet, because the data is gathered in the background we hardly know or think about the erosion of our privacy.

The introduction of the Xbox One takes this data collection to a whole new level.

Microsoft's new gaming console is a technological marvel. It also raises horrifying privacy issues as it will place an always-on device in your house that has the ability to hear you, see you (even in complete darkness), and even monitor your heart rate. You don't have to be a conspiracy wing-nut to have concerns about how such a device could be abused. We used to worry about a police state where Big Brother was always watching, a nefarious, fascist monitoring imposed by the government. In reality, when Big Brother comes into our home, we will have invited him in.

Lest you think I am exagerating, you have to understand how far the Kinect technology has come since it was first introduced in 2010. At that time Kinect was an option: a camera, microphone that could listen to your voice, take your commands and even interperet your movement, translating the way you move into the action of a video game. The gadget worked pretty well, but it had limitations. Low light often confused it, as could noisy environments. The device was a bit ungainly and when it was active it made noises that reminded you it was tracking you as the on-board motors kept it lined up with you. Not so the new model. Its black unblinking eye never moves.

In Microsoft's new system Kinect is an intregal part of the design, no longer optional. It is incredibly capable and can process billions of bits of information about you and your environment per second. It is so much more than a camera. Kinect can tell if you're smiling. It can tell if you're looking at the tv, or doing something else.

And, Kinect can see things your puny human eyeballs can't. In a demonstration I was given, the Kinect identified the buttons on a shirt in a room that was completely dark. It can tell if you're smiling. It can tell if you're looking at the tv, or doing something else. It can tell if you're smiling. It can tell if you're looking at the tv, or doing something else. It is so much more than a camera; Kinect can measure your heartbeat just by looking at you.

If its night vision is amazing and kind of creepy, its ability to hear is uncanny, the stuff of spy films. In one demonstration Microsoft played the raw sound of a player listening to 5.1 sound while gaming and issuing voice commands via Kinect. Frankly, you couldn't discern a word the gamer was saying over the cacophony. Then they played what Kinect was able to do to filter out the noise. Instantly, every word the player was saying came into focus. It was like one of those films where an agent takes an impossibly blurry photograph and keeps saying "enhance" until the picture is crystal clear, only this was with audio. It does this, in part, by knowing where you are standing in the room and fixing on that point as the source for its audio.

All this new capability gives unprecedented power to game developers. They can measure the intensity of your punching and kicking; they can measure your emotional response to content, they can monitor how engaged you are with Xbox content in real time.

The dark, flip side to this technological marvel is that it "bugs" your living room, granting Microsoft and its partners unprecedented access to your daily life in a way that the KGB could have only dreamt of. This goes way beyond identity tracking on the web with cookies. Imagine, they not only have a device that can hear you and see you, they can identify you, quantify what shows you're watching, determine whether you're watching the ads and how you're responding to them.

If someone went rogue the device could do even more. Kinect could be used to analyze your conversations. It could take compromising photos.

When I asked whether Kinect would have an "on-air" light that would remind the user that they were "on-the-air" I was told that had not yet been determined. (Of course, anyone with the sophistication to view your living room would almost certainly have the software know-how to defeat such a light.)

Neither was the written privacy policy yet finalized.

Microsoft did point out that though the Xbox One would always be "connected" to the web, always on, that didn't mean that it would be broadcasting your words and images all the time.

However, the device raises concerns. To what extent, for instance, would Microsoft and its partners cooperate with law enforcement officials? Would data recorded and/or transmitted by the device be subject to fourth amendment protections. Could law enforcement use Kinect data to listen in on conversations (with or without Microsoft's permission)? Could they use Kinect data to prove or disprove a defendant's location at a particular time? What about using the data to prove or disprove your emotional state via the heart monitors. Could SWAT teams use the data, determining the positions of perpetrators and/or hostages in a room, by tapping into the Kinect feed?

Frankly, I'm less concerned about hackers getting into my Xbox, than I am about Governmental and Corporate agencies being given the keys. The invasive quality of a device that might be listening to you when you're not even thinking about it could change your life. The obvious examples might be of the IRS or FBI listening for key words that the government thinks are related to a bad behavior. We're not used to watching what we say in "private"; but, what if privacy no longer exists?

You know those commercials they put before videos on the web. What if they wouldn't advance unless you were watching the screen or if you had your audio off? Kinect will now be able to identify those factors.

Imagine advertisments being specifically tailored to your conversations? "Excuse me, Dave, but I couldn't help noticing that you've seemed agitated and depressed lately. Such a long face so much of the time. Perhaps you'd be interested in the latest word on anti-depressants from Eli Lily?"

Microsoft has done some significant back-peddling since I first asked them about privacy at the Xbox One launch event. However, the technology actually goes beyond any written policy because third parties might not respect it. The device, without a kill switch that blocks the audio and video transmission, is a powerful target for governmental agencies, corporations, and hackers.

So, even if the written policy appears to protect you, the device might not. However, looking at the privacy policies of Google and Microsoft you have probably already consented to, your data is not sacrosanct. It can be reached through the legal process, in certain circumstances without your knowledge.

Reports now say that Xbox One will not run without the Kinect plugged in. If this is true, the only way to keep your living room deloused from bugs may be to unplug the device or keep it out completely.

The deeper problem is that all of our electronics are likely to be voice and network enabled in the not-to-distant-future. It has already started. Microwaves, stereo systems, our TVs - all will be networked. We won't need to be bugged; we will have done it ourselves.