June 12, 2013

Is Your Xbox Watching You? New Game Console Collects More Than You May Know.

“When a private talk over a bottle of wine is broadcast on the radio, what can it mean but that the world is turning into a concentration camp?” ― Milan Kundera

My son came to me just the other day, and quite understandably distressed.

“Mom,” he said, “I’m done with Microsoft. They can keep their Xbox Kinect, it’s creepy.”

For those of you, myself included, that need a little extra techie-geek translation particularly in the earlier hours of the early morning―the Xbox is one of the world’s most popular gaming systems and the Kinect is Microsoft’s innovative peripheral device designed to ‘draw the player into the Xbox gaming experience .’

Now, before I go any further along in this story…let me first explain that my son is an ‘avid gamer.’ This is his one outlet, his ‘time on the couch’ decompressing after a long day. Ask him anything about game play, strategy, Corporate plans for new games, the so-called ‘benefits’ of game play with respect to hand-eye coordination…he’ll tell you. He’s also been featured as one of Xbox Live’s top gamers.

I don’t really know what that means, but apparently it’s a very big deal.

I have limits imposed, of course – and my son, never hesitates to drop that controller  to join me on any one of my fabulous treks into nature. And, as he is always quite encouraging as I struggle to regain my strength, center and balance―I afford him this one indulgence in his day.

We are human, after all. And this, has become somewhat of our mother to teenage son balance.

Having said this, you can imagine my shock when my son approached me to offer that he had ‘simply had enough.’

When he explained his reasoning, and my inferior technical mind was finally able to trot along and catch up―I was absolutely stunned. I had assumed that the Kinect was simply another peripheral device for the ever-popular Microsoft Xbox gaming system. By the advertisements, it appeared its main purpose was to virtually integrate the motion of the gamer into the Xbox game.

That’s pretty cool, right?

My son shared with me a copy of the most recent  ‘privacy notice’ sent out to all Xbox users. It was a fuzzy attempt at reassuring users that the ‘data’ gathered by the Kinect would be secure. In light of recent news events, you can imagine my overall discomfort and parental hesitation.

Just a few weeks ago, Microsoft unveiled their newest upgrades to the ever-popular gaming system,  showcasing its ‘always-on feature.’ They demonstrated by showing a short clip of a user walking into a room and waking the device up from its low power state with a simple voice command, “Xbox On.” Once powered on the device would begin to collect information designed to enhance the user experience.

You would think the simple answer would be simply to disconnect the Kinect, toss it in the trash and go on your merry gaming way. But it’s not that simple. You see, this next generation of gaming system requires the use of the Kinect and it’s ‘always on’ feature in order to function. Microsoft insists this change was intended to allow “the new Xbox to respond quickly and naturally to you, whenever you need it.”

So, what could possibly go wrong?

The issues with privacy are, in part, related to the Xbox’s built in microphone and camera―which Microsoft boasts are “so sensitive to your presence, that (they) can even read your heartbeat while you’re exercising, and recognize and process audio that’s personalized to specific individuals.”

And, if that’s not enough to cause a little spike in the resting heart rate, it’s reported that Microsoft’s use of biometric data is not specifically limited to enhancing the gaming experience.

According to Sara Downey,

“Microsoft, game companies, and advertisers will know exactly who’s sitting in front of the TV. They’ll know your voice, your face, the games you like to play, the TV shows you watch, the music you have on the Xbox’s hard drive, and the ads you see. It could enable a new era of targeted ads that are even more accurate because they’ll change with whoever’s using the TV. Microsoft has already filed a “living room snooping patent” that detects how many people are watching and makes them buy access to content, like movies, depending on how many eyes there are.”

Couple this with the integration of online game data storage, chat tools, web browsing, and user file storage―and, I agree with my son, that’s just kind of creepy.

Science fiction author, C.M. Kornbluth, once postulated that we might one day live in a world in which advertisement and other such things were so powerful that the reaches of their grasp would be inescapable. Have we become so dependent on our electronic devices that we are now inseparable? And, if so, at what cost?

And, should companies who knowingly share this information with government officials and third-party vendors have full access without our explicit consent?

What laws are in place to protect the security of our most personal information?

The short answer is that there are none. The legal community is woefully behind in this area of judicial due process. As it stands, if I walk into my son’s room to put a few socks away…I am, in a sense, ‘consenting to monitoring.’ And, once my information is collected, it no longer belongs to me.

So what is Microsoft’s official response to this public outcry?

“We are working to redesign so that you can turn it off.”

Pardon me folks, but even for this generally carefree and well-grounded hippie Buddhist – that scares the hell out of me.

Video: What’s Yours is Theirs.

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