2013-02-15 / Columnists

Your Life And Privacy

Smile! You’re On (Not So) Candid Camera
By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US

It’s a typical weekend afternoon. Your children are lying in front of the television, watching SpongeBob. They’re singing along to the theme song you’ve heard so many times that you know it by heart. The episode starts – the one where SpongeBob and his buddies go camping in his front yard. Your kids have seen it at least 30 times. When you hear them reciting the characters’ lines, you know it’s time to act.

You march angrily into the TV room yelling something about tests and homework. As the kids stare at you blankly, SpongeBob fades to a commercial for a tutoring service. Out of the TV a voice speaks. “Do your kids struggle with homework? Do they get poor grades on tests? We have the solution!”

Coincidence or Big Brother?

Late last year, Verizon, the cable company, filed a patent for a system that contains audio and video sensors combined with facial and profile recognition software. This technology would allow Verizon to obtain information on things and people in the room where the television is playing, like how many people are present, their sex, age, race, moods, what they are doing and even what they are eating and drinking as they watch TV.

The technology is similar to behavioral tracking, where websites collect information on online browsing habits and use it to serve targeted ads to us or sell to advertising networks. Verizon’s technology will enable the company to broadcast advertising via television targeted to the people watching the television and present in the room.

The Verizon technology described in the patent application has not been rolled out, and the cable company is not presently tracking its viewers in the thorough manner it someday envisions. However, there are televisions on the market that are hooked up to the Internet, have built-in cameras, microphones, face tracking and recognition software, such as Samsung’s “smart TVs”. (These types of TVs, which make it possible for us to view data streamed over the Internet, such as NetFlix movies, also leave us presently vulnerable to hacking and data thieves.)

The Verizon technology, coupled with smart televisions’ Internet access, cameras and microphones, will not only enable all sorts of data gathering, but also will allow our data to be massaged into behavioral profiles for commercial purposes. But will this same data be available for other purposes? To our employers? The government?

While the use of this technology is still in its infancy, it is evident that our daily lives are increasingly under surveillance.

Orwell’s prophesy was 29 years early.

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