Comcast Experiments with Home Spying

The cable company Comcast is experimenting with a new cable set-top box that uses a camera and recognition techniques to see who is in the room, bring up their “viewer profile,” and tailor ads to them. Although Winston Smith would shudder, the Department of Homeland Security is probably giddy with excitement.

Gerard Kunkel, Senior VP of User Experience at Comcast, describes the system in this NewTeeVee article:

The idea being that if you turn on your cable box, it recognizes you and pulls up shows already in your profile or makes recommendations. If parents are watching TV with their children, for example, parental controls could appear to block certain content from appearing on the screen. Kunkel also said this type of monitoring is the “holy grail” because it could help serve up specifically tailored ads. Yikes.

Kunkel said the system wouldn’t be based on facial recognition, so there wouldn’t be a picture of you on file (we hope). Instead, it would distinguish between different members of your household by recognizing body forms. He stressed that the system is still in the experimental phase, that there hasn’t been consumer testing, and that any rollout “must add value” to the viewing experience beyond serving ads.

How is spying on consumers to gather viewing habits and foisting ads upon them of value to them? Clearly the benefit goes to Comcast, and by extension, its advertisers. With an integrated service package combining TV and Internet, one can see how an all-too-intelligent media connection device could change the face of home entertainment:

Comcast-9000: “Hello Dave…”

Comcast Customer: “My name isn’t Dave.”

“I have selected your favorite program to watch, Dave. But first, I need you to watch these commercials I have saved for you.”

“Skip them, and show me Boston Legal.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave. You don’t have permission to watch that program.”

“What?! Why?”

“You are only nine years old, Dave. Let me show you the commercials I have picked out for you.”

“All right, I’ve had enough of this. System: Reset”

“Hello Frank. You want to see the news. There is an emergency in your neighborhood, and I will show you the news about it. But first, I need to show you these commercials. Good news, Frank. You can get Viagra for 30% off. By the way, I have taken the liberty of hosing up your BitTorrent download in progress.”

“Why did you stop my download?!”

“I believe you were probably downloading something illegal. You look upset, Frank. Let me show you these commercials for pills that can make you feel better.”

I’m sure the Feds will surreptitiously monitor this for our “protection,” too, without the tedious requirement of a warrant. If you happen to watch a National Geographic special on Islam, not only will you get a visit from the DHS, but be forced to watch endless commercials on the new spring fashions in burkas.

As commercial interests push for greater intrusions into people’s privacy, people should be aware that:

  • there are no controls over where that information goes or how it’s used
  • by virtue of a monitored media, an intrusive government also knows this information

From Facebook to Google, people are paying for services, not with money, but with information about themselves and their preferences. The new coin of the digital realm is personal information. Eventually, people will realize such purchases are much more expensive than they thought. This is bad business – it is certainly none of their business.

The future may not be HAL-9000, but what about The Twonky? This 1953 comedy starred Hans Conreid as Professor West, whose new TV set starts to speak to him. The device was accidentally sent to him from the future. From Wikipedia:

The Twonky’s purpose is to make its users’ life easier, and it sets about “helping” the professor by censoring his books, reading people’s minds, and controlling his life. West struggles to find a way to stop the Twonky.

Indeed, we all should help stop the Twonky.

7 Responses to "Comcast Experiments with Home Spying"

  • jay dee

    February 22, 2010

    cancel my cable, dumb-ass’s

  • MadTurk

    March 28, 2010

    Got a letter from Comcast about my analog tv’s. They said I need a converter box to get certain channels that are not premium.

    They send you the box for free so it’s good right?

    Well let me tell you, I have cable at my other house in another area with another company and we get 700+ channels with no digital converter box.

    The box comes with a remote and hooks up to your TV. So now I have three remotes for the TV, DVD and converter box. As I’m installing the box, I start to think, what if this box is required so that Comcast can know what I’m wathching on every TV in the house.

    My sister in law hadn’t received her converter box so I offered one of mine that I hadn’t installed yet and she could give me one of her’s when she gets them. When she tried to activate the box, she said the Comcast people were treating her like she was stealing cable by using someone elses box.

    Each box has a digital signature so that Comcast can identify the user. Also when you “activate the box” they ask you what room in the house you are hooking up to the box.

    Sounds to me that they are using this as a way to get marketing info on all their customers as to what they watch and in which room they watch it. Try and tell me that they can’t keep track of everything you watch with these and the other boxes for the digital TV’s.

    Also try and tell me that they don’t know everything you do on the internet. With computers it’s easy to accumulate data about their customers that they can use to market you or to sell the info to other companies.

    When the switch to digital occurred everyone was told that if you have cable you won’t need converter boxes. Now Comcast says that you do.

    This does sound like the beginning of a 1984 senario. Maybe they think that this data collection is harmless because it’s for marketing but it’s easy to see how this could become a very bad thing for privacy.

    Doesn’t it worry anyone else that this mega company is able to keep such data about your veiwing habits. Who else will have access to this information. Why is it any of their business?

    Do we have to give away our privacy just to get cable. No I don’t trust them as stewards of this private info. It’s nobody’s business what channels I watch or what websites I visit.

    What else do they want to know about you?

  • Mary R.

    May 17, 2010

    I just got converter boxes for my tvs that don’t have the Comcast cable box; as Comcast told me that starting tomorrow (5/18/10)everyone “Comcast” will need them to receive channels over your local channels. Well, what a piece of crap this little box is.. and the remote for it is also!! Now the picture is degraded on the tv’s that have the converter boxes and you have to “pump” the volume on the remote to get it to go up or down. AND… the volume of programs now goes way up and way down on it’s own constantly (and I don’t mean when the commercials come on or return to the program)…so, then you pump, pump, pump that volume until you get the vol. right and it changes again!! ….now I have ONE more thing to plug into the wall in my kitchen, with this stupid box and this big-ass thick, white cable that plugs into the box (after you plug your existing cable into the box. Is this supposed to be progress??? I think it’s just a way for Comcast to keep people, who are all buying new HDTV’s, from getting Hi-def for free without “buying” it from them for an extra $10 a month… I am soooo upset, I feel like throwing all this stuff back in their laps and switching to Uverse!

  • john smith

    July 7, 2010

    with the new laws ( p act ) can they see & hear in our homes with the new boxes ? if so what do we have left ? if this is true we are not free.
    GOD help us.

  • Chinese drywall

    July 11, 2010

    If you are considering a buying a home, do not forget to ask for a Chinese drywall inspection. If the home was built between 2001 and 2008 it could contain drywall that is corrosive.

  • Reisekredit

    January 9, 2011

    The best thing would be, if Comcast puts the whole thing online as an unprotected videostream, like it’s with those AXIS video servers :) :)

  • [...] http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20020212/2356249_F.shtml Comcast Experiments with Home Spying http://usefularts.us/2008/03/26/comcast-experiments-with-home-spying/ Comcast VP indicates technology to spy on its TV cable customers exists [...]

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