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.”
“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.