Xbox One, by Big Brother

Posted on June 28, 2013


Think the NSA collecting your personal phone data is an intrusion?  You might want to reconsider that Xbox One purchase.

Video gaming in your living room is just awesome these days!  Take something like Microsoft’s Xbox One, which is way beyond the mere legions of games that can be played solo or online; no, this is your everything entertainment center.  It streams TV and movies from the internet.  You can video chat through it – in high definition! –  via Skype.  Like a smartphone, it offers a host of applications.  It updates itself automatically.   And it comes with Kinect, so you don’t even need a headset or game controller; you are the controller!  Wave your hand, kick your feet, give a voice command, and the ever-watchful machine responds accordingly .   It’s always listening for your voice to give it the command, “Xbox on,” so you can have some fun!

Whoa, wait – what?  It’s always listening, kind of like that Hal 9000 computer that killed the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey?  Or… more to the point, perhaps… kind of like the NSA?

Oh, it gets worse.  Microsoft has actually filed a patent for tech that enables it to – and this is directly from the patent –  “regulate the presentation of content on a per-user-view basis….  The limitation may comprise a number of user views, a number of user views over time, a number of simultaneous user views, views tied to user identities, views limited to user age or any variation or combination thereof…. The users consuming the content on a display device are monitored so that if the number of user-views licensed is exceeded, remedial action may be taken.”

Read that again.   The tech will monitor not just the number of people in the room… it will not just keep a tally of total numbers having seen a game or movie… it is intended to be able to verify individual ages and identities.  The camera is High-Definition, after all.

So… if I read the patent correctly, the experience might go like this:  I’m having a few friends over, we sit down to watch a movie, and then, in the middle of the movie, Hubby walks in.  The creepy Hal 9000 stops the performance and admonishes, “Lila, you have just exceeded the number of users licensed to attend this performance.  Would you like to pay to upgrade the license?”  I’ll say something like, “@#!!  Why did I ever buy this thing?”  Hal 9000 will then say, “I’m sorry Lila, you are forcing me to terminate your movie.  Come back when you’re ready to play by the rules.”  Well, Hal 9000, at least we are still at that point in our history that I can unplug you and wheel you out to the recycle bin.  Thank God I wised up before you were able to lock me in my own house and kill me for copyright infringements.

I might be exaggerating, but probably not by very much!  User excitement at the advent of the Xbox One was swiftly replaced by concern over this tech.  As Ryan Gallagher reports in Slate, Peter Schaar, Germany’s federal data protection commissioner, expressed worries that the Xbox One  “records all sorts of personal information” that would be “processed on an external server” and possibly passed on to third parties. “The fact that Microsoft is now spying on my living room is just a twisted nightmare,” he said.

Well, I’m glad that at least the German government is looking out for the consumer.  One has to ask why US consumers are sort of thrown under the bus when it comes to our privacy.  Then again, one has to ask why American consumers are so willing to give up their privacy in exchange for something as trivial as entertainment.  Do we not understand how much of our information is in the hands of others?  Do we think this information is harmless?  Do we trust that our information won’t be used for purposes we did not intend or foresee?  Do we trust that these big corporations – Microsoft, Google, Facebook and so on – will keep our personal data secure?  And now… we’re going to run out and buy a system that monitors our living rooms?

In the wake of revelations that the NSA has been collecting all of our phone data, not to mention other forms of communication – do we trust that an awesome monitoring capability like that provided by the Xbox One won’t be leveraged by the government?

The scary thing about intelligence collection is that it is, in some ways, opportunist.  It uses what’s there. That’s why it uses our phone records or our emails (inappropriately, in my view of the 4th Amendment).  Whether or not Xbox might ever be used for government intelligence collection, I don’t know, but the technical capability is there.  After all, that’s exactly what Microsoft is doing with it: corporate monitoring of your living room.  So no thanks.  No Hal 9000 for me.

Hal 9000:  "Lila, what are you doing?"

Hal 9000: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Lila?”