Magazine article Mother Jones

See and Be Seen: Does Your TV Spy on You?

Magazine article Mother Jones

See and Be Seen: Does Your TV Spy on You?

Article excerpt

Media executives and TV addicts alike have been celebrating the advent of interactive television, like TiVo and Microsoft's UltimateTV. But the technology has the potential of turning into a public-relations nightmare. In March, the Denver-based Privacy Foundation reported that TiVo, a popular set-top box that can digitally record up to 30 hours of programming, sends nightly activity reports back to corporate headquarters. Using a built-in modem, TiVo transmits reams of information on everything from the console's internal temperature to users' viewing records. Do you have a weakness for "Judge Judy" that you'd prefer to keep secret? The folks at TiVo can find out.

The company insists that it removes the data's personal markers and keeps only "anonymous viewing information." But Richard M. Smith, the Privacy Foundation's chief technology officer, says the practice conflicts with TiVo's written promise to its customers that "all of your personal viewing information remains on your receiver in your home."

Any of TiVo's 150,000-some users can opt out of the data collection, but few have done so-perhaps because the opt-out instructions are buried deep within the Byzantine literature that accompanies the device. And while the company's privacy policy forbids the peddling of customer information to advertisers, the manual takes care to note that rules "may change over time."

The Privacy Foundation report, and testimony from Smith at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in April, spurred the Federal Trade Commission to launch an inquiry into whether TiVo violates its own data-collection guidelines. …

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