Television sets have become increasingly interactive over the years, and in the abstract, that’s exciting. In execution, however, interactive technology means intrusive technology. Technology that’s smart enough to adapt to users’ directions and to sense their interests is also smart enough to keep records about what users do. Add Internet connectivity to that intelligence, and the privacy of the American home will take a big hit.
Back in the day, television was a passive medium, carrying pictures and sounds that people received without transmitting any information in return. That’s changing now, and a new generation of television sets soon to hit the market will be watching Americans as Americans watch TV. The sets will keep records not just of which television shows people watch, but will track the manner in which people watch those shows, checking in on which scenes users linger over, for example.
This information will go back to the producers of TV shows, helping them to understand how to craft more popular entertainment, but will also be made available to advertisers, who will target their commercial content to the TV watchers who are most likely to pay attention to the ads. Another marketing application for the information gathered through the televisions will be in the construction of even more complex marketing databases, in which information about particular people from multiple sources is combined to predict their behavior and target them with marketing campaigns. In the near future, if you watch a Katy Perry concert video on your television set, it may increase the possibility that you’ll receive unsolicited emails for glittery lip gloss, or look at ads for bubblegum in the margins of your Facebook profile.
It won’t just be corporate surveillance systems taking advantage of these new snooping TV sets. The government will be getting in on the action as well. As this summer’s expanding scandal of nearly-ubiquitous spying on Americans by the National Security Agency and other government agencies has demonstrated, once commercial companies begin to collect information about Americans, the federal government will move in quickly and claim the right to seize and search that information at will. Once corporations snoop in on us, the spymasters declare, our information is no longer private, and no longer subject to protection under the Fourth Amendment, no matter how unreasonable the search and seizure may seem. With the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act as justification, federal government spies will join in your regularly scheduled television surveillance.
Ad Age takes note of new snoopervision sets developed by LG, but also identifies Sony, Vizio, and Samsung as companies developing TVs that will come with surveillance capability pre-installed. In addition, software with the deceivingly gentle name Gracenote can be retroactively installed – from a distance – on any smart TV sold since 2011.