Your Tube: Bill to Protect TV Viewers’ Privacy

The “We Are Watching You Act” has been introduced in response to reports that companies are exploring technology that would record the activities of TV consumers.

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Since the leak earlier this month about the government’s data collection practices, Americans have been more obsessed than usual with who is watching them and why. Late last week, two lawmakers provided at least one answer, when they proposed the “We Are Watching You Act.”

It may sound like an admission that congresspeople are peering through our dining room blinds, but it’s actually about television, something Americans watch some five hours of each day. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) filed H.R. 2356 “in response to reports that national telecommunications companies are exploring technology…that would record the personal activities of consumers as they watch television from the privacy of their own homes,” according to a statement released by Capuano.

Some of those reports came out in late 2012, after Verizon employees filed a patent application about hyper-targeting ads by using audio and visual monitors. For example, sensors could detect that you and your beau are canoodling before cuing an ad for a contraceptive. Or microphones could pick up a heated argument before flashing a spot about marriage counseling. (A company spokesman says the application was rejected and that they do not have any plans for such a product or service.)

Verizon is not the only company that has proposed new methods of audience surveillance in recent years. In late 2011, for example, Microsoft employees outlined how audience monitoring could be used to create feedback about media programs, recording whether viewers were sad, disgusted, afraid, smiling, scowling, cheering or asleep. Google and Comcast have also considered using TV-viewer monitors to gather data or tailor user experiences. If passed, the legislation would require that consumers opt in to any such system and that an on-screen warning appears whenever it is in action: “We are watching you,” it would read, in type large enough “to be readable form a distance.” Market analysts say that if the bill becomes a law, there might be a deterrent effect for companies who have toyed with the technology.

Experts like Forrester Reseach’s Jim Nail say that for now, the problem the bill addresses is “science fiction” when it comes to advertising. Advertisers are wary of targeting specific households, he says, much less a Midwestern woman in their 30s who cries when she watches Duck Dynasty. Advertisers “see TV as a mass-reach vehicle, and it’s extremely efficient to buy,” Nail says. “When you get down to the level of targeting individual consumers based on what mood they’re in, it makes it so incredibly complicated that you lose a lot of that efficiency.” Live hyper-targeting via the set-top box would require new models for production, placement, planning and tracking, he says: “The chances of their ever becoming a reality…from a business standpoint, are close to nil.”

Even if those chances are nil, advertisers are just one group that might be interested in the data. Another Microsoft patent application, for example, proposed using viewer recognition technology to determine the age of a TV viewer, so little Billy couldn’t watch adult movies. IDC analyst Greg Ireland says that tech companies will likely find ways around any legislation when it comes to new avenues of data collection. Capuano concedes that the “technology is in its conceptual stages,” which makes it hard to regulate in advance.

Regardless, the bill gives two lawmakers another avenue for championing privacy at a politically prime time. Capuano, whose office did not respond for comment, played up the country’s ambivalent feelings about voyeurism in his statement: “Given what we have recently learned about the access that the government has to the phone numbers we call, the emails we send and the websites we visit,” he writes, “it is important for consumers to decide for themselves whether they want this technology.”