What if while you watched your television, it was watching you too?
That’s the latest question in Internet privacy, as technology companies experiment with monitoring devices that can track the actions of viewers as a method of ad targeting.
Legislation proposed earlier this month, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, a Republican from Farmville, would stop digital surveillance technologies from entering American households without consent. The bill would allow viewers to opt out of being watched by the devices altogether. If a customer agreed to the monitoring, companies would still have to provide an onscreen warning about their watchful eye.
“When we get to a point in this country that a device can be put into a product that you buy for you and your family to enjoy, and you don’t even know it, then we need to slow the train down, expose the possible problem, and that’s what this bill is going to do,” said Jones, who represents North Carolina’s third district, which includes eight full counties and parts of five others in the eastern part of the state.
The legislation, filed by U.S. Rep. Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Massachusetts, arrives on the heels of public outcry over revelations that the National Security Agency has been intercepting millions of American telephone records and monitoring the systems of large Internet companies.
Called the “We Are Watching You Act,” the bill was created in response to a rejected 2011 Verizon Communications patent proposing a detection system installed into the set-top boxes of cable subscribers or into digital video recorders that would pick up on the viewer’s actions and select an advertisement based on those actions, to be aired during the commercial break. A viewer humming a cheerful song, for example, would be shown an ad geared toward happy people, while a person sitting on the couch next to his or her dog might see an ad for dog food. The device would also be able to determine the user’s location, the pitch of his or her voice – even the length of his or her hair, according to the patent application.
Verizon said in a statement it has no plans for any related products or services.
More companies follow suit
Though it was their patent that sparked the filing, Verizon is not the only company to experiment with surveillance technologies. Microsoft in 2011 filed a patent application for a computing system linked to a television that would reward people for watching a broadcast of an entire multi-episode series, or for sitting through commercials rather than getting up to, say, grab a snack during the break. The patent received initial rejection, but the company filed an amendment and is now awaiting the examiner’s response, according to a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database.
“Microsoft regularly applies for and receives patents as part of its business practice. Not all patents applied for or received will be incorporated into a Microsoft product,” the company said in a statement.
Since such surveillance systems like these don’t yet exist, getting the legislation passed will put the rules in place before they reach the market, Jones said.
Future of privacy
The idea of tracking consumer behavior for advertising purposes is nothing new. If 10 people log on to the same web page at the same time, previous search histories will lead them all to see different advertisements, said Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based technology industry analyst.
“In the beginning, what Verizon wants to do isn’t really a problem. But it’s what it turns into that could become a problem a couple of years from now as it continues to evolve,” he said. “And that’s the problem with technology today.”
While requiring companies to include an opt-in option on these products is a good idea, having an onscreen warning that would notify consumers the entire time they’re being watched could be bad for innovation, said Fred Stutzman, a technology industry researcher who teaches classes on privacy and social media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Privacy law needs to balance protecting consumers without disturbing or preventing innovation,” he said. “If that could get stripped out of the bill, the bill as it stands forcing an opt-in is probably not a bad idea.”
Jones said he and Capuano are currently looking to build support for the bill in the U.S. House.
“It goes back to the people not knowing that the company or the corporation has got a secret device on a purchase you made and not knowing about the secret device that’s going to give them info about your family,” Jones said. “It’s all a matter of knowing and not knowing. And what you know, you can adapt to. What you don’t know is dangerous.”