Would You Let Your TV Watch You?

Jul 17, 2013

A study released last week by Boston-based Strategy Analytics has revealed that, in general, Americans really don’t want their TVs watching them.

The research found that “43 percent of people would never allow a camera or sensing device to be connected to their TV.”

On the other hand, 14 percent said they’re okay with their TV viewing their behavior and their data being collected.

Verizon already applied for a patent for a DVR system that would be able to track movement in a room and tailor its advertisements based on what it learns. For example, if it detects a dog in the room, it could run advertisements for dog food.

The patent was denied because similar technology already exists.

Legislation to control this kind of technology is also in the works. Congressman Mike Capuano, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Congressman Walter Jones, Republican of North Carolina, have proposed new legislation would require companies to explicitly ask consumers for permission to collect and store their data.

It’s called the “We Are Watching You Act.”


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And surveillance is in the news today. The House Judiciary Committee is holding hearings on those leaked government programs. Congressman James Sensenbrenner, one of the primary authors of the PATRIOT Act and a staunch advocate of expanded surveillance powers, is saying today he never intended the government to sweep up phone records. And what about license plates?

The ACLU published a study today. They say it shows police across the country may have pictures of your car and know where you were driving because they're using scanners to gather millions of digital records on plates. The ACLU wants police departments to immediately delete any records of cars that are not linked to a crime. So your phone, your car. Are you glancing nervously at your TV?


Yeah. Is it possible that your cable and phone companies are watching you at home? The technology already exists to allow those companies to watch us, and the information they could get from that could help advertisers target us. HERE AND NOW media analyst John Carroll has been collecting data on this issue. He's with us now to sort it all out. Welcome, John.

JOHN CARROLL, BYLINE: Good to be here.

HOBSON: So, first of all, what exactly can they do right now?

CARROLL: Well, what they can do is they can watch you. They can listen to you. They can detect motion. What Verizon had applied for was technology in DVR, the box the records programs for you that combines facial, motion and voice recognition. What it can do is detect conversations. It can detect people.

YOUNG: Well, you're saying detect. It can hear the conversations?

CARROLL: It can hear the conversations. It's infrared cameras. It's microphones. So it can hear conversations. It can see people. It can watch what they're doing. It can identify branded products. So what they want is if you're drinking a Budweiser, they can identify that. They'll send you a Clydesdale ad. If you're working out on a treadmill, they can identify that. They'll send you a health food ad. So it's every advertiser's dream: marketing to an audience of one.

HOBSON: They can. You're saying they can. But they not - they aren't necessarily doing it right now.

CARROLL: They are not doing it right now, to the best of our knowledge. I mean, there are - there is technology built into smart TVs that could be used for that purpose. Right now, nobody seems to be doing it openly. Verizon said we never intended to use this technology. Why they were seeking a patent for it is a really good question. But, you know, they said we're not going to use it.

YOUNG: Right.

CARROLL: And we're not even close to the people who are really good at this, who are Comcast, Microsoft. Microsoft has this kind of technology built into the Xbox Kinect, the game device. So it's out there. It just hasn't been used in a sort of sinister way.

YOUNG: So let's just be clear. So Microsoft has it to the Xbox Kinect. They haven't used it for this purpose yet. And the Verizon patent application was denied, right?

CARROLL: It was denied. And - but Verizon has applied for a request for continued examination, which is sort of like an appeal with the patent people.

YOUNG: And we should say it was denied because the patent's already been taken. So somebody's already doing or taken that patent.

CARROLL: Right. There are two similar patents out there according to the Patent Office, so they turned it down. But Verizon wants to keep trying.

HOBSON: So Congress is worried about this as I'm sure many people who are hearing this right now.

YOUNG: I'm worried about this.

HOBSON: Yeah, exactly.


HOBSON: What are lawmakers doing?

CARROLL: OK. Well, there are very few things that are bipartisan creepy, but this is one of them. So Democratic Congressman Michael Capuano of Massachusetts and Republican Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina have combined to sponsor a legislation that's called the We Are Watching You Act.


CARROLL: And what it says is that companies have to get prior consent from consumers to do this kind of surveillance in the home. And they have to reveal what they're going to collect and how they're going to use it. They have to - if you consent to this, when they are watching you, they have put up on the screen we are watching you so that you'll be aware.

It's all very Orwellian. And the final thing is if you don't want this technology to be active in your television, then they have to provide you with an identical service that doesn't have the tracking device in it.

YOUNG: Look, we know there are a lot of young listeners saying, and what's a television?


YOUNG: But will this apply, too, if you get most of your video on your computer?


YOUNG: Yeah.

CARROLL: This will apply to any video service that you get. So they would have to alert you when they're actually looking at you.

YOUNG: And this technology they're trying to stop, is it all technology or are humans involved? In other words, when they say we are watching you, is there a human or is there software that will pick up the word Budweiser or pick up the word, gee, I need to shop for milk? I mean, is it - or is it people?

CARROLL: No. There's no little guy with a green eyeshade watching all this stuff. You know, this is algorithmic. This is basically a technology that can do these things. I mean, a lot of it is out there. Apple's iPhone Siri, you know, can get a sense of - if you're mad, if you're anxious, if, you know, that it's mood-recognition technology. It's all out there. It's just a question of how you bundle it and how you apply it.

HOBSON: And if you're thinking right now, oh, I'm just going to not use any of this technology. I'm just going to go out to a regular old store. I'm going to go to a brick-and mortar-shop. Well, listen to this. This is from a video piece on The New York Times website yesterday about how businesses track people who come into their stores. They featured the software company RetailNext. Shelley Kohan is the vice president of retail consulting. She explained what the software does.


SHELLEY KOHAN: RetailNext follows the path of a customer through a store so from the time that they enter the building and then what they do inside that store. Do they go left, do they go right. And when they go up to a fixture, how long are they standing at that fixture. Are they going to actually make a purchase from that fixture?

HOBSON: So that's lovely. John, is there anything that can be done about that?

CARROLL: Well, not really. I mean, you can turn your phone off and hopefully don't have another way of tracking you. But when you walk around with a smartphone, you're walking around with a GPS device on you. So there are all kinds of marketers who want to take advantage of that. So if they know you're on the neighborhood, they want to be able to send you a coupon and say come in right now and save 20 percent.

HOBSON: But big picture here, is it worth trying to stop these technological devices from watching you? Or do we just have to figure out how to live with this?

CARROLL: It's interesting because it's sort of a balance. I mean, part of this is the cover charge for living in the digital world. I mean, you trade personal information for services and convenience. What happens is people in general will not think too much about it. They'll think, well, that's just the price of living technologically.

When they find out the details, when you get into the particulars such as, you know, we're combining your online activity with your credit card purchases, with your travel, with your motor vehicle activity, all of the sudden you got something that is much more complicated and much more sort of three-dimensional than people tend to think. So it's not just name, state and gender. It's a lot more than that.

YOUNG: Well, I'm sure there are also people wondering when does it be requested by the government, when does the government ask a company. And did you hear anybody say anything else besides I need to get a bottle of milk or I like Budweiser?

CARROLL: Right. I mean, that's the problem is, you know, this is intended for one purpose. And the marketers and the video providers will say, this is what we want it for. But can it be hacked? Can it be subpoenaed by the government? You know, what can happen to it? And what else can it be combined with? It's the combination of data now that's really providing a lot of the complexity.

YOUNG: John Carroll, HERE AND NOW's media analyst and a mass communication professor at Boston University. You can find a link to his Campaign Outsider blog at hereandnow.org. John, thanks so much.

CARROLL: Thank you.

HOBSON: Thanks, John.


HALL & OATES: (Singing) I see you, you see me. Watch you blowing the lines when you're making a scene. Oh, girl...

YOUNG: OK. First of all, big debate as to whether or not we should use Hall & Oates, which I know they've had a great resurgence, but still, it's Hall & Oates. Or do you know of another song that in more modern day reflects what we're talking about?

HOBSON: This is an old favorite, Robin. I agree with the producers who wanted to put this on there.


YOUNG: Before you were born.


HOBSON: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.