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House Bill Would Restrict Camera-Enabled ‘Spy’ Set-Tops

Legislation would force video services to display message about data collection and provide option for camera-free box

Citing privacy concerns, a U.S. representative has introduced legislation that would force video providers to display the message “We are watching you” if they use devices with cameras that monitor the activity of viewers.

The “We Are Watching You Act of 2013” bill also would require video providers to provide a camera-free set-top box and service if at a customer’s request. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) and co-sponsor Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) introduced the bill, House Resolution 2356, on Thursday.

The bill would potentially affect Microsoft’s Xbox videogame console (pictured above), which uses the Kinect camera attachment to provide voice and gesture controls of games and entertainment. In a blog post last week, Microsoft said Xbox users have control over all their personal data and can turn the Kinect features off at any time.

“At Microsoft, we prioritize your privacy,” the company said in the post. “We understand that your personal data and privacy are important. Xbox One and Kinect will provide tools to put you in control of your data.”

Such a law also would have implications for Intel Media’s forthcoming Internet-delivered TV service, which the company has said will include a set-top with a camera and facial-recognition technology to deliver personalized content and potentially advertising. Intel execs have said users would be able to disable the camera features.

Intel does not see the bill as an issue that will affect its service. “We take the privacy of our users very seriously,” Intel Media rep Jon Carvill said. “Our philosophy is to leave all controls in the hands of the user for our platform including what information they choose to share.”

In a statement, Capuano called camera-enabled set-tops “an incredible invasion of privacy.” “These DVRs would essentially observe consumers as they watch television as a way to super-target ads,” he said.

Capuano said he was spurred to introduce the bill after learning about Verizon Communications’ application for a patent covering the use of a camera-enabled set-top to serve targeted ads. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office rejected the telco’s patent application in March, but the issue remains relevant, according to the congressman. Verizon declined to comment.

Capuano also was motivated by recent disclosures about the U.S. government’s widespread monitoring of phone calls and Internet activity under the National Security Agency’s PRISM program.

“Think about what you do in the privacy of your own home and then think about how you would feel sharing that information with your cable company, their advertisers and your government,” he said.

As written, the bill would require a video provider to display the “We are watching you” message for the duration of the time information is being collected, as well as provide a description of what data is being collected and how it will be used.

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