Privacy Advisor

TV-Monitoring Patent Prompts Privacy Worries

February 1, 2013

By Mathew J. Schwartz

Could a television soon monitor your every move and conversation?

FierceCable recently reported on a May 2011 Verizon patent application for using infrared cameras and microphones to analyze the conversations and body language of anyone located near a television. The patent application, "Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a User," which was subsequently rejected, came to light after being automatically published—as all applications are, 18 months after being filed—by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

The patent proposes using a "detection zone" to create the televisual equivalent of Google serving targeted advertising based on the content of people's Gmail messages. Ask your kids if the dog's been fed, for example, and the system could cue up an advertisement for dog food. Using people's smartphones and tablets, meanwhile, would give the system additional reach.

Cue privacy fallout and criticism for a "creepy invasion-of-privacy scenario." Of course, that's no surprise. Watching TV, and having your TV watch back, has long been the feared surveillance dystopia yin to the free-entertainment yang. George Orwell's novel 1984, published 63 years ago, imagined the potential privacy compromises that could result with its portrayal of a world in which the government monitored citizens directly through their TVs.

The reality, however, tends not toward state control but market research. Simply put, advertisers want to find better ways to sell their goods to consumers. But related efforts can sometimes cross perceived privacy lines. In Verizon's case, fears were compounded by the absence of the word "privacy" anywhere in the 7,500-word, 14-page patent application.

After news of Verizon's patent application surfaced, Verizon's director of digital policy communications, Libby Jacobson, said in a blog post that the company "prizes its well-established track record of respecting its customers’ privacy and protecting their personal information" and dismissed what she characterized as "a highly speculative news report."

At the same time, Jacobson did not detail how or when Verizon might use such a system for targeted advertising purposes. "We don’t comment on pending patent applications; it’s all interesting, but as most folks know, a patent application is very different from a product or service or device actually coming to market any time soon," she said.

UPDATE: After this story ran, a Verizon spokesman said via phone that the patent application, which was filed by Verizon engineers, was rejected in November 2012. The Verizon blog posted by Jacobson on December 5, 2012, which referred to the patent application as being "pending," has since been removed from Verizon's website.

Obviously, any company that wants to monitor consumers, especially via their TV, smartphone and tablet, should be prepared to answer privacy questions. The Nielsen ratings, for example, involve agreements with a relatively small group of consumers to install set-top boxes that monitor what they're watching. While Nielsen didn't respond to a request for comment on its sample size, it's thought to involve about 25,000 TV-watching households in the United States, and is used by broadcast and cable networks to sell advertising based on the demographics any given show attracts—such as viewers between the ages of 18 and 49.

TV advertising is big business, involving about $72 billion per year. As Nielsen demonstrates, however, not all TV-focused market research needs to involve privacy tradeoffs.

Another market researcher that’s arguably also managed to balance data gathering with consumer privacy protections is television analytics firm TRA, which was recently purchased by TiVo. The firm brings together TV-watching data—it has access to 4 million set-top boxes, and counts 1.5 million in its systems—with data showing what consumers actually purchase, such as gets tracked by supermarket customer-loyalty cards. By marrying that data, "you now have the purchase information for the households that are watching that particular program, as opposed to just demographics," said Mark Lieberman, TRA chairman and CEO.

While that purchase-behavior data combination might sound like a privacy nightmare to manage, TRA Chief Technology Officer Brian Canning said Privacy By Design has been a focus since the company was formed five years ago. Since then, he said, the business has further demonstrated its commitment to information security by securing ISO 27001 certification.

Of course, it's easy to say Privacy By Design, but how has TRA put it into practice? For starters, Lieberman said TRA always allows data providers to opt out. From a security standpoint, meanwhile, the company only transmits data using secure connections and encrypts all stored data. TRA itself doesn't see or store any consumers’ personally identifiable information (PII). Instead, in a double-blind process, it uses Experian to tell it that a particular set of anonymized data from a set-top box user corresponds with another particular set of data from a supermarket loyalty card. Experian furthermore never sees PII and only transmits encrypted data.

In a further privacy safeguard, TRA only allows its customers to study a group of 30 households or more to complicate any effort to tie an individual consumer to a specific data point, such as what type of shampoo they purchase. "The good news is that for television, advertisers don't buy individual households, they buy programs, or networks, or parts of days," said Lieberman, and where TRA's approach differs from other options is in its focus on those viewers’ actual purchase behavior. "Ultimately, why are advertisers advertising? To sell more products, and our system gives them more insight," he said.

While this is attractive for advertisers, careful planning helps mitigate any accompanying privacy or data security risks. "To get the data, you'd need either a conspiracy amongst multiple independent parties to disclose information that they're not supposed to disclose, contractually, or else multiple data breaches amongst multiple organizations," said Matt Zinn, TiVo's general counsel.

In other words, not all data-gathering efforts associated with TV have to be creepy—so long as businesses ensure that privacy and information security are part of their business model.

Mathew Schwartz reports on information security and privacy issues for InformationWeek and The Privacy Advisor.

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