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TV Privacy in the Age of Smarter Devices, Voice Spying, AI Mousetraps

Privacy is boiling over right now, and perhaps rightfully so. The novelty of big data and better, more addressable content, music, videos, posts, news, and food recommendations may be wearing off just as we realize how much it’s impacting and transforming our daily lives.

Sure, it’s led to the rise of things we need and enjoy: Spotify, Amazon, Facebook/Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Netflix, Waze, etc. But it’s also led to the feeding and nurturing of hate groups that subsist on lies, it has fragmented voices of reason and pounded down the vast middle that believes in honor, virtues and civility.

Because after all, civility isn’t optimized for virality and engagement, those things the machines value most. And though privacy has been given freely by citizens who just want to enjoy these “free” services, the value exchange needs to be called into question, constantly.

What’s more, this is all the beginning. When walking down a city street, or looking at a register, odds will soon be that your face is making it into a database. Your phone, a pocket navigator when you need it, is already kicking off enough data about you that the concept of opting out is kind of a joke.

No one is watching you shower or stuff your face with wings while watching a game, just yet. But the tech is in place on some gaming systems, and in panels installed by companies like TVision Insights, where emotional triggers and attention are being read from people’s faces. Comcast plans to introduce a health monitoring app, that knows your bathroom visits, how often you may be in bed, etc.

Let’s face it, when you’re watching something, there is almost always something making note of it. And in most cases, using that data collected to impact your experience. Maybe for better, more relevant advertising, or perhaps to suggest a product or show you may also enjoy, or maybe to try to figure out if you’re a terrorist.

As was discussed this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, data is the new fuel for the attention economy (you can watch here if you want). Tracking has become part of our dynamically informed, AI-enhanced, consumer lives. And for all the scary hype, people largely just opt-in anyway.

And while some tracking around TV is absolutely egregious, such as microphones in (kids) android apps used for ad-targeting and “measurement”; the “TV is spying on you” news waves are mostly a lot of hype. TV is, right now, the most secure device in our connected lives.

Testing The TV Hypothesis Against the Oligopoly

Recently, out of curiosity, I said, (without touching a button), “Hey Siri, is my smart TV spying on me?” “Nope,” it said, without hesitation (literally). I then asked, “Siri, is my phone spying on me,” to which it replied “interesting question.”

I guess speaking for a platform like Apple, where a standard developer kit used by people around the world includes the ability to turn on things like location awareness in the background, heart-rate monitoring and microphone access, Siri is programmed to deliver the digital equivalent of “no comment.”

My phone calls me “Yo” — my son did that.

And yet somehow, Apple CEO Tim Cook and company have the guts to adopt a privacy pedestal. While I appreciate the ITP2 movement for restricting cookies I can’t help but wonder how much of that is a war against Google and Facebook and setting the stage to move consumer consent and ad serving to the device and how much that is really about helping consumers. The former seems more likely, especially because Apple has resisted apps that crack down on phone addiction.

Alexa am I Being Recorded?

Then I thought about asking Alexa about her tracking tactics but, you see, I won’t have one in my home because I don’t like the idea of a microphone that is always on, sitting in my living room waiting for magic words so it can play me a song, search a query or send me some soap.

I dunno, that’s kind of like asking someone from the CIA his opinion on spying. For my own benefit, perhaps? But logging all that is said within earshot? That’s somehow escaping the severe everyday scrutiny- hair pulling alarm- we might expect.

We literally have millions of listening devices inside of homes, and the media conversations, until recently, have been more about the business opportunities of a voice-activated future than what it also represents: a systematic erosion of privacy on the American population.

So I went to Amazon instead to look up what books there may be on this topic of device monitoring and “spying” — and of course I was greeted with suggestions based on what I had looked at last time. I don’t need Amazon indexing this random interest set alongside my soap choices it gathered from Whole Foods, thanks. Nothing to type here.

What The Zuck Do You Know?

I went to the desktop version of Facebook, whose mobile app I deleted after we were speaking of the benefits of gut bacteria in my house and randomly and magically I started seeing graphic ads for digestive health. I was, no doubt, a high-quality lead for some performance campaign, which I guess I can live with.

I thought to myself, what good can come of a search here? This code base is only geared toward manipulation of my time and emotions so that I come back and stay longer. And though it serves as the primary information source for billions of people on the planet, it’s not very useful for finding out information you want to know when you want to know it, anyway.

So I went to Messenger to hit up a homie who also cares about this topic, and remembered that this too is indexed somewhere, searchable by commerce robots for the better manipulation of my interests. Sheesh.

Don’t Be Evil

So I typed an email to a colleague about this little journey I now found myself on — using Gmail, where I have agreed to have every word indexed against an ad-serving database. I thought about how the government, on a moment’s notice, could subpoena my 212,478 unread emails collected over the last ten years. (Yeah, sorry I didn’t see that email you sent, btw.) And I thought about how, as I turned this over to Google, that information isn’t just used for serving me ads but also is stored somewhere that, I don’t know, some hacker in Ukraine may access and use to take my identity or sell on an open market to others trying to sell me things. And you know what? I said screw it and I typed these ideas down in a Google Doc because the trade-off for the service it provides is literally, worth it.

There is no escape, really.

I cannot suddenly become Amish and avoid the use of a search engine, a website with cookies, a device listening in on conversations in a friend’s home, or a phone that knows where I am, what I am doing on it, at what time, and how lazy I am being today. And I can’t stop Netflix from knowing what I watch, or Roku from knowing my Netflix/Hulu split.

What TV Actually Knows

And as someone who works in TV innovations, I know what data comes from TVs: anonymous screen-level verification of imagery. Literally a massive library of “image X appeared on X many screens at X time.” Using this, the TV industry, once held hostage by small Nielsen panels, can build better products based on greater truths. Such as, “People who watch X also tuned out for Y”and “Z many TVs played this ad, on average 91% of the way through.”

Now, I totally get how any notion that a device that has served as the primary entertainment tool for generations could know anything about our viewing habits results can be uncomfortable. And yet I also know that the TV-industrial complex in Hollywood, New York, Denver, Atlanta, San Jose needs this kind of data to survive.

Without the inputs of data truth, such as what people are watching, how much and how often, the TV industry will find itself stuck in 1990, pushing what a few executives think is good, reliant on small slow panels, and broadcasting fixed ideas rather than dynamically offering a content journey.  The old way is the sure way to hep Netflix and Amazon take over.

I also think that because the TV is the anchor device in the home, getting privacy controls right is critical, especially as the Internet of Things explodes.

The point of smart TVs collecting what amounts to dumb (yet important) data is this: If we are going to scoff at that notion we ought to, as a society, have severe amnesia over what’s happening to privacy inside households and the pockets of most Americans these days, collecting TV data is the least of our issues. And for all intents and purposes, the TV device remains the safest of all platforms in our data-enriched content-consuming lives.