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Print Version-TVs spying on us is just the tip of the iceberg. Is Congress ready to act?


TVs spying on us is just the tip of the iceberg. Is Congress ready to act?

by Rep. Michael Capuano (MA-07) | Read it on

I have filed bills over the years to protect a little of what is left of our privacy but so far, few have paid attention. Maybe, finally, that will change now.

As the FBI director, James Comey, recently said: “There is no such thing as absolute privacy.” The newly leaked CIA files raised a few eyebrows for many reasons, including when we all learned that America’s CIA and Britain’s MI5 worked together to hack personal television sets in order to watch and listen to people in their own homes. It is important to understand that these so-called “weeping angel” programs are nothing new and not limited to governmental spy agencies — private corporations do it, too.

Just last month, the Federal Trade Commission fined the makers of Vizio televisions $2.2m for collecting viewing data on 11 million consumers without telling them. If you owned a Vizio TV, it could hear you even when turned off — and it could see you, too. Information was gathered and shared with retailers to refine sales techniques and better target consumers. But they are not the only ones.

Samsung has admitted that it was conducting similar spying with its televisions and recently a company selling “smart” teddy bears was exposed for collecting 2m voice recordings of children and parents. Even toys are now troves of information.

Your car collects data on your speed, whether you are using headlights, turn signals, brakes and seatbelts. Every day, public and private entities collect an unlimited amount of information about the way you spend your time — where you drove your car, what time of day you traveled, where you parked and more. If you carry your cellphone around with you, its mapping program is recording every step you take. Some refrigerators record the food you eat — so think about more than just your waistline before grabbing that late-night snack.

None of this is a joke or an exaggeration — companies have been investing in technology capable of watching consumers in order to super-target ads and profit by selling the data collected to other retailers. In many cases, you do not know about it and have no control over it.

One international cable company filed for a US patent for a home cable box that would allow the company to watch you, listen to you, and take your temperature with infrared methods. The patent application stated that the company would be able to distinguish “ambient action … of eating, exercising, laughing, reading, sleeping, talking, humming, cleaning” and more.

The application further noted that the cable company would be able to distinguish between the acts of “cuddling, fighting, participating in a game or sporting event, and talking”. That information would then be used to deliver targeted ads to your living room.

If data collected from the cable box indicated that someone was cleaning the kitchen, ads for products to make floors and appliances shine might show up. If data collected revealed that a couple was fighting, an advertisement associated with relationship counseling might be selected for them.

Much of what was in the patent certainly seemed unbelievable, especially language explaining that “the device may utilize one or more terms associated with cuddling (eg, the terms romance, love, cuddle, snuggle, etc) to search for and/or select a commercial associated with cuddling (eg, a commercial for a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers, a commercial including a trailer for an upcoming romantic comedy movie, etc).”

You may think I am indulging in hyperbole with that description, but it is taken word for word from the patent application. There is no need for exaggeration; the new reality is shocking enough. We are now learning that none of this is unbelievable any more.

All this happens without you knowing about it — without you having control over it — whether your device is on or off — without the government or company having any limits on the use of the information, the sale of the information, or how long they can keep it. You have no right to stop them, no right to control the information, and apparently no right to even know it is happening.

There is a great debate over the release of the CIA information, including whether it was legal. Regardless of the outcome of that debate, maybe one silver lining will be that America and the world wakes up about the total invasion we have allowed of every aspect of our privacy by both the government and private companies. I have filed bills over the years to protect a little of what is left of our privacy but so far, few have paid attention. Maybe, finally, we can have an open debate about how much of our lives we own and how much belongs to others.

I know I do not want my car recording every move I make, my child’s doll recording conversations, or my TV watching my wife and me cuddle.

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