If you worry about Big Brother watching you, and you watch a lot of TV, you have good reason. In response to reports that major telecommunications companies are exploring technology that would record the personal activities of consumers as they watch television from the privacy of their own homes, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) have filed the “We Are Watching You Act” in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Current law, the congressmen said, does not address these devices, so the new legislation would require both an opt-in for consumers and an on-screen warning whenever the device is recording information about consumers.
“This may sound preposterous, but it is neither a joke nor an exaggeration. These DVRs would essentially observe consumers as they watch television as a way to super-target ads,” said Capuano. “It is an incredible invasion of privacy. Given what we have recently learned about the access that the government has to the phone numbers we call, the e-mails we send and the websites we visit, it is important for consumers to decide for themselves whether they want this technology.
“Think about what you do in the privacy of your own home, and then think about how you would feel sharing that information with your cable company, their advertisers and your government,” said Capuano.
“Allowing this type of technology to be installed in the homes of individuals without their consent would be an egregious invasion of privacy,” said Jones. “When the government has an unfortunate history of secretly collecting private citizens’ information from technology providers, we must ensure that safeguards are in place to protect Americans’ rights.”
Currently available devices could utilize technology such as infrared cameras and microphones embedded in DVRs and cable boxes. A patent application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by Verizon notes the technology could detect a range of viewer activities.
According to the patent application, the set-top device will be able to distinguish “ambient action … of eating, exercising, laughing, reading, sleeping, talking, humming, cleaning” and more.
The application further notes that ambient action also “comprises an interaction between the user and another user” which are described as “at least one of cuddling, fighting, participating in a game or sporting event and talking.”
That information would then be used to deliver targeted ads to the viewer’s living room. Other companies, such as Intel, Microsoft and Comcast have explored similar technology.
Although this DVR technology is in its conceptual stages, it is important that Congress establish clear boundaries before it becomes reality, Capuano said. There is nothing, he said, currently preventing companies from utilizing the technology, and there is no obligation to notify the consumer before it is used and no obligation to give consumers the chance to opt out.
“Too often, Congress is far behind when it comes to advancements in technology and is forced to update regulations that are decades old so that they are meaningful for today’s innovations,” Capuano said. “The ‘We Are Watching You Act’ does not prohibit companies from developing this technology. It simply lets consumers make their own decisions about whether or not it belongs in their homes.”
The proposed “We Are Watching You Act” requires that the operator of the technology must provide specific details on how collected information will be used and who will have access to the data.
When the recording device is in use, the words "WE ARE WATCHING YOU" would appear, large enough to be readable from a distance, for as long as the device is recording the viewing area. If consumers opt out of the new technology, companies are required to offer a video service that does not collect this information but is otherwise identical in all respects.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will be authorized to enforce the requirements if the bill passes. The FTC last fall issued guidelines for facial recognition software that could be used to determine gender or age for targeted ads. The proposed legislation would convert those guidelines to legal mandates.