Oh My Tech!: Is Xbox One the next Big Brother?

By Vince Horiuchi

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: May 31, 2013 11:29AM
Updated: December 7, 2013 11:32PM
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Vince Horiuchi

It’s been more than a decade since the year 2001, but there finally may be a HAL 9000 that spies on our every move.

That ominous all-seeing eye could be in the form of the new Xbox One video game system announced last week.

Since Microsoft introduced the Xbox One May 21, many people have expressed serious concerns about how the device could potentially breach our privacy.

The new Xbox will come with a next-generation version of the Kinect sensor, a bar that sits in front of the TV to read the player’s movements and voice. Inside the new Kinect 2 will be a high-resolution camera and a high-fidelity microphone, and gamers have already trashed Microsoft for the potential Kinect 2 has for peering into homes.

Initially, I brushed off such worries as those from tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists. But the more I learn about the new Kinect and what Microsoft wants to do with it, the more I realize there should be some genuine concerns. Here’s why:

A prying eye? • The resolution on the Kinect 2 camera is so high that it actually can identify your face (which allows it to quickly log into the right person’s account automatically). It not only can read your body in two dimensions, but also its depth. And it can even read which muscles are flexing and how your weight is being distributed to each leg. The camera is so sensitive, Microsoft claims it can read your heartbeat, although I can’t imagine why it should (perhaps for one of those exercise video games?).

All of that should sound great for video games because the camera can accurately read your body’s movements and translate that to the TV screen for game play.

But consider this. For the most part, the Xbox requires that it be connected to the Internet all the time. So this high-resolution camera is peering into your living room with an always-on connection to the Internet and to Microsoft’s servers. Additionally, the camera also will be used for Skype video conferencing (Microsoft now owns Skype), which means it’s capable of broadcasting video of you.

Of course, Microsoft claims that it will never archive or pass on private information to third parties it obtains from the Kinect 2.

Perhaps it’s nothing but paranoia to think a company or government entity would deliberately peer into a living room. But if you remember, school administrators in New York City and Philadelphia admitted a few years ago that they were using laptops loaned to students to spy on them whenever the kids turned on the webcams. So it’s not unthinkable that someone could use the technology for snooping.

And then I read on the tech blog The Verge that Microsoft submitted a patent application two years ago that illustrates how the company wants to use the Kinect camera system to monitor TV viewers’ behaviors. According to the patent, the software giant wants to award “TV achievements” to viewers if they watch a series all the way through or sit through a series of commercials. In order to do that, the camera has to monitor viewers sitting on the couch and watching TV.

“The patent doesn’t provide any definitive evidence that Microsoft plans to bring TV achievements or viewer monitoring to the Xbox 360 or the Xbox One, but it’s an example of where the company’s thinking could be headed,” The Verge article states.

Listening in • The new Kinect 2 will use voice commands even more extensively than on the Xbox 360. Users will be able to tell the Xbox One to change TV channels, TV inputs and call up more information on a screen, such as fantasy footballs stats. The microphone is so sensitive this time around, it supposedly will even distinguish between different voices.

Users also will be able to turn the Xbox One on by just saying “Xbox on.” That scares gamers — not the feature itself, but how it’s done. In order to do that, the microphone has to remain on and always listening, even when the console is off. If the Kinect 2 is always listening for “Xbox on,” will it be listening for other things?

So, to summarize, all of these technological improvements require cameras and microphones that are almost always on and pointed at you in your living room. And it’s attached to a device that is constantly connected to the Internet. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Microsoft will never admit that it can or will view or listen to anyone through the new Kinect 2 on the Xbox One. That would be corporate suicide. But what’s to prevent hackers from giving it a try?

Certainly one solution is just to not buy the new Xbox One. But I have to ask, why do companies such as Microsoft and Google — which is producing the equally privacy-violating Google Glass — think the only way to advance technology is to intrude on our privacy more and more?

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he’ll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.