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Unwanted Surveillance: An Inevitable Outcome of Consumer Non-Cognizance?

Remember the Samsung image sensor-inclusive televisions that I first mentioned in early January, with a follow-up blurb last Friday? Well, thanks to a Slashdot heads-up earlier today, I've got even more to say...and it's disturbing, to say the least. The title, "New Samsung TV Watches You Watching It," may be a sufficient topic tip-off, but here's the body text:

Straight out of 1984, Samsung has unveiled a new series of televisions with integrated cameras and microphones, complete with facial and voice recognition software. Best of all, there appears to be no physical indication of the mic and camera's status, so consumers have no way of knowing when they're being monitored, or by whom... and if you don't find the idea of a TV that watches you creepy enough, apparently Samsung's Terms of Service include a clause allowing third-party apps to make use of the monitoring system, and use the data gathered for their own purposes. Nothing Orwellian about that...

Few-to-no consumers actually read a product's Terms of Service, of course, a fact that the animated television series South Park parodied to hilarious effect last year. This situation reminds me of a series of emails I got last month, inviting me to test a product called Pritect from a company called Catalyst Components (I declined). From the press release:

Paul Harper, Pritect's inventor and the President of Catalyst Components, comments: "For the first time ever, we have invited into our living rooms a technology which can not only capture video and sound data, but can also identify specific individuals using advanced biometrics, or 3-d facial recognition. The Kinect can see everything when powered on and for most users, has a direct connection to the internet. It's like a giant window into your home, but you can never know who might be looking in. With Pritect, you can now close the blinds."

"The Pritect Sensor Cover is the first and only product designed to protect the Kinect's lenses, eliminate the camera's view when not in use, and block the LED and infrared sensor lights for an optimal home theater," continued Harper. "Pritect does not interfere with Kinect's startup calibrations or voice command functions; it simply eliminates the light necessary for the camera to operate."

Paranoid? Well maybe...but then again, maybe not. Consider this late-2010 quote from Dennis Durkin, Microsoft’s corporate vice president and chief operating and financial officer of the Interactive Entertainment Business, at the BMO Digital Entertainment Investor Conference in New York:

Kinect actually brings a really interesting opportunity as it relates to (customer data), because obviously with Kinect when you stand in front of it, it has face recognition, voice recognition. We can cater what content gets presented to you based on who you are. So your wife, in the future, may get a different set of content choices than you because we have a smart device that knows that your preferences are different than hers.

And over time, that will help us be more targeted about what content choices we present. What advertising we present. How we get better feedback and data. About how many people are in a room when an advertisement is shown. How many people are in a room when a game is being played. How are those people engaged with the game? How are they engaged with a sporting event? Are they standing up, are they excited, are they wearing Seahawks jerseys, are they wearing Giants jerseys? … But those are the kind of things that when you add this new sensor into the equation, there’s a bunch of business opportunities that also come with that.

And all of this also reminds me of another Slashdot showcase, this one from the beginning of the month. Aware of the ever-increasing number of image sensors appearing in folks' homes (smartphones, tablets, computer-tethered webcams, networked webcams, still image and video cameras...and yes, game consoles and televisions), Varun Arora, the CEO of a Singapore-based startup called GoToCamera, thinks he can convince consumers (presumably via fiscal compensation, though he doesn't say exactly) to allow his company to "switch on the various cameras in their homes and let his company's algorithms analyze what they show, then sell the results as marketing data."

Historically, I might have snorted and said "good luck with that." But as the success of companies like Facebook and Google shows, many folks are surprisingly blasé about privacy, either oblivious to the implications of their privacy-surrendering decisions or consciously willing to trade away privacy for "free." And I suspect that some people actually harbor a secret thrill at the idea of being victims of constant voyeurism.