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Verizon Wants Your DVR to Spy On You
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December 06, 2012 by Grant Clauser

I know I can be a little paranoid. I set up an IP camera aimed at my goldfish pond to alert me when the devil heron comes to feed, but I was really surprised to learn that Verizon is working on a plan to spy on me in my underwear—in order to sell me more underwear.

This week the site ArsTechnica reported on a patent filed by Verizon for a DVR that “can watch and listen to the goings-on in your living room.” No, I’m not making this up. And if you think it’s probably a lot more innocent than it sounds, consider that Verizon used these two examples of possible scenarios:

sounds of arguing prompt ads for marriage counseling, while sounds of “cuddling” prompts ads for contraceptives.

Verizon isn’t the first or only company to look for ways to spy into our homes in an effort to sell us stuff. Both Comcast and Google (for Google TV) have filed related patents.

So I ask, how many of you cover the camera on your laptop when you’re not using it. A few years ago there was a case in which a high school remotely accessed laptop cameras to spy on students. The school officials involved claimed they were trying to track down missing laptops, but some of the students saw it another way.

Back in March of this year, HD Guru Gary Merson expressed concern over the cameras embedded in some models of Samsung’s smart TVs (see a review of one here). In those models, the camera is used for facial recognition, motion control and some games or third-party apps. Merson questioned what data the camera (and its microphone) collected and what was done with it.

While I, like most people, find advertising annoying, I also understand it’s necessity. Advertising allows TV programs to be made, pays for sporting events and pays my Electronic House salary. Online advertisers already track our web browsing, which explains why my Facebook page is loaded with adds for fly fishing retreats and Doctor Who toys.  At the same time it seems that a camera spying on your every move crosses a serious line. Can we be confident in the integrity of every company that is collecting that data?

I also wonder about the usefulness of it. What will happen when Verizon’s built-in spy cams detect that everyone in the room is passed out sleeping during the next episode of Two and a Half Men? Will the next ad be promoting high-octane coffee or will the DVR just send out a 100dB alarm to wake everyone up.

And on a much more practical level, the sort of cheap cameras that would be built into a system like that do very poorly in low light—just the kind of lighting most people watch TV in. I have my doubts that the camera could reliably tell the difference between fighting and cuddling.

I don’t need to put on my aluminum foil hat on just yet. This is just one of many patents companies file that may never turn into a product. However, advertisers are clearly in need of a new way to make up for the revenue lost from our growing DVR, VOD and streaming video habits. I just don’t think inviting them into my living room to share Modern Family is the way to do it.

 

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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