Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Just Because You're Paranoid

That's the saying right? That just because you always think something is hinky doesn't mean it isn't? Yesterday Comcast announced that they're going to integrate Skype with their cable service (today they said they are also rolling out Facebook, which I guess means there will now be as many unusable widgets on people's Comcast boxes as there are now on my FIOS box).

I am guessing that this will mean that either the boxes will soon sport integrated web cams or you will finally be able to plug something into that USB port that's always been there with no discernible use.

Am I the only one creeped out by this?

A while back I remember that the Neilson people were talking about putting a camera in their "people meter" boxes so that they could tell if there were actually people watching or if the set was just on, or more productively how many people were watching when there were people watching. This felt like an invasion of sorts to me, but I guess it wasn't such a big deal because not everyone has a people meter.

But pretty much everyone has a cable box, one company or another. And what they think is that we want a live camera and microphone on our TV's? A live bug in every bedroom in America? Orwell would be proud.

There's a news story that's been around for a while here in PA about a school district that issued laptops to their students. The laptops had a security program that allowed a remote service to activate the web cam without the participation of the user. Can you guess what they found? Thousands of candid images of students taken without their notice. Is there anything to be learned here?

I have this picture in my head. It's of the people that work at the call center, the ones that can kick your box remotely when you call tech service with a problem. What is Comcast going to do to assure me that these kind folks aren't using me as reality TV? And whatever they do, why on Earth based on our prior experience would I believe them?

Comcast should have to sign a $10 million dollar pledge for any user who it is discovered to have had images wrongly recorded, and they should have to give every customer with the service a free year for each instance where it happens to anyone. The privacy rules here need to be iron clad if we are to allow this possibility into our homes.

Did you know your cable box is on even when it is off? Our FIOS box sends a little "you forgot to turn off your TV" message when it is "off" so it must be on. My old Comcast box would go to a set up menu if you pressed "menu" on the remote while the box was "off." At least cell phones and computers turn off, and land lines hang up. Have you read Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"? Think about all those open mics.

And let's not even begin to think about the NSA and FBI dimensions to the thing.

Still, the press is positive. I guess maybe it's time to invest in white noise generators and duct tape.


elj said...

Can't be that hard to open the box and cut the leads to the mic/camera, or re-route them to something more... interesting. What if you connected the camera input to what you were actually watching? Then all those people in the call center just get to watch the game, or Charlie's Angels or something.

David said...

I'm sure there will be ways to defeat it. I guess the interesting angle to me is that where I trust google and aol and others with my communications, I'm not predisposed to extend that trust to my cable company.