New book, lawmaker expose Big Brother technology in the living room Interactive TV Spies on Viewers.
Ground-breaking legislation in California is fighting Microsoft and AOL to stop them creating the machine George Orwell foresaw - the TV set that watches you.
At the same time, a new book titled Spy TV exposes the methods by which digital interactive television will observe and experiment of viewers. It describes how neural network software will be used to create "psychographic profiles" and then "modify the behavior" of individuals.
This year broadcasters will celebrate interactive TV in public, using words like "convenience" and "empowerment". AOL TV is rolling out with the TiVo personal video recorder (PVR), that helps viewers find and save programs they might like. Microsoft is launching its own PVR called Ultimate TV, claiming "It puts you in control!". But while you may be sold on home shopping and chat, broadcasters have been selling advertisers their new power to monitor everything you do with your remote.
At industry conferences on interactive TV, Microsoft has been handing out specifications of its new platform. Their Microsoft TV Server, for instance, enables "optimizes revenue opportunities by providing rich personalization and targeting of content and ads to consumers based on their television viewing and Web surfing histories and preferences."
Matthew Timms, of Two Way TV in London, describes this surveillance in the home in plain English:
"..Somehow they feel they're sitting there - it's just them and the television - even though the reality is it's got a wire leading straight back to somebody's computer."
Now in bookstores, Spy TV is the backbone of an effort by White Dot, the anti-television campaign, to educate the public about this invasive technology. Finally his paying customers will get to hear Phil Swain of Cable and Wireless describe the huge amounts of data he will gather:
"Changing channels, selecting certain programs, viewing habits, browsing through interactive sites, purchasing habits, all that kind of stuff we can track. Every click, we can track. We will be recording that information."
In another recent development, Motorola Broadband, ACTV and OpenTV have announced investment in a subsidy called SpotOn, designed to create profiles of over 7 million viewers, without their knowledge. ACTV looks forward to delivering commercials based on "the specific profile of an individual household, which is generated by ACTV's software within the digital set-top in the home."
SpotOn's head of Sales in Dever, Bob Evans is proud of what he sells advertisers:
"That (set-top) box can hold 64,000 bits of information about you!"
Your TV set will know you intimately. Another intereactive TV company, NDS, is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International. Here they describe a product called XTV that manages the data your television will capture:
"Viewers can be segmented by a host of new demographics, psychographics and qualitative preferences, based on actual viewing behavior, while advertisers can create low cost messages tailored to these new niche markets."
Both SpotOn and XTV will be supported on the set-top boxes used by Liberate (the operating system of AOLTV) and Microsoft TV (the operating system of Ultimate TV)
Every move you make, for half the time you're not sleeping or working, will go into a file with your name on it. That's many times more data than even internet marketers like DoubleClick could dream of. Who gets use of that file? Large companies, government.. the highest bidder. What is it used for? Here's how one consultant put it:
"What we're all trying to do is change or reinforce existing behavior."
Control. That's the buzzword being used to sell interactive television. But who is getting that control? For a year and a half David Burke of the anti-television campaign White Dot, has been talking to broadcasters, marketers, advertisers and IT consultants about their plans for this machine.
What really excites them is the way interactive TV creates experimental conditions in the home. Your TV will be able to show you something, monitor how you respond, and then show you something else based on what you did. It's a cycle of stimulus, measurement and response that will allow your TV set to learn about you, adapt to you and work on you over time. Until it has you doing what it wants.
Your behavior is the video game these men are playing, and they talk about their viewers as if they were lab rats. Here a database analyst working with one of the interactive broadcasters talks the new language of home entertainment:
"You have to create some control group testing, in effect throw people some placebos. So if we're trying to increase their spend, or increase their usage or increase their customer satisfaction scores, we'll take one group and split it down the middle and expose it to two separate batches of data presentation."
Whoever controls your interactive TV will be able to spend years of your life just trying different combinations of programming until they find out what makes you do things. And increasingly, that controller will not be human. It will be a computer running artificial intelligence software, capable of learning and adapting. "The ultimate goal," says one consultant, "is to crack human personality in real time."
And when that goal is reached, even if they just come close, how easy will it be to sell each viewer a bottle of shampoo? A government policy? A new form of government? "There is no limit to this technology," says one excited broadcaster, "The limit is only as far as the mind can imagine!"
David Burke, a computer programmer himself, agrees. That's how he wrote most of the book:
"Every time I thought of some new way interactive TV could work," he says, "to control viewer behavior, I called up the companies involved and found they were already working on it. The unbelievable thing is: we are actually paying them to do this to us!"
Privacy International awarded Spy TV a "Winston" at its 1999 Big Brother Awards and now joins White Dot, Junkbusters, and the Center for Media Education in calling for a guarantee that viewers can "opt in" instead of having to "opt out".
It is just such an approach to personal privacy that California State Senator Debra Bowen is seeking to make into law. California already protects people from being tape recorded or filmed in their homes without their expressed permission. Her bill (SB 1599) simply extended that common sense approach to people's televisions. But lobbyists from AOL and Microsoft managed to kill it last year. Now, as the Senate comes back into session, Bowen is gathering votes to bring it back (SB1090).
We haven't been told the truth about interactive television.