Xbox One, Kinect Present a Bundle of Privacy Concerns
Selling Games to You and Selling You to Advertisers
User data is big business in a number of sectors of the technology industry, and the gathering of user data — and the privacy implications thereof — has kicked off several controversies in the mobile space, with cellular providers, in social media and elsewhere. Facebook, for example, doesn’t make money from the billion people who use it, it makes money by selling data on that billion people to advertisers. Google makes a huge amount of money not from rolling out user services like Google Search, Google Maps or Gmail, but from advertising (it’s the reason you see Google’s mobile apps on Apple’s iPhone).
As of right now, Microsoft does not sell Xbox Live user data, according to the XBL terms of service. What data it gathers, Microsoft writes, is used to improve its various services, and the company deserves due credit for taking that step to protect privacy. However, with the user data industry worth as much money as it is, it’s possible Microsoft’s privacy stance could change in the future, especially given how much data the Xbox One can gather on its users.
Microsoft already has turned Xbox Live into a captive audience advertising platform, which makes use of some data about Xbox Live’s users (at least, demographic data and the total numbers of users). A big boon of the Xbox One’s consistent (though not always-on) Internet connection is that it can constantly funnel data back to Microsoft about how you use its machine.
The trouble with the Kinect is that it provides Microsoft all sorts of opportunities to add to the data it’s gathering on you at any given time, even if the company isn’t making use of the Kinect’s full power. Saying that the Kinect might identify that you’re a Sprite drinker by reading a can in your house, and then allow Microsoft to target Mountain Dew ads at you, might be a bit of a stretch.
But what about the Kinect just counting how many people you generally watch movies with? What about it noting what you watch when you’re alone versus when you’re with someone else? What about it marrying an image of you with your user profile? Where is the line for what is okay for the sensor to pick up and transmit back to Microsoft? With the kind of power the Kinect is packing, the potential for abuse is high.
Sure, one might argue that worrying the Kinect is watching you is a bit alarmist. It is somewhat alarmist, at least in the sense that we don’t know what the Kinect can do, and it’s important not to leap to conclusions or judge Microsoft before all (or any) information is in. Microsoft also isn’t interested in kicking off a privacy controversy, and up to now has been pretty good about protecting Xbox Live users’ data.
But Microsoft does have some interest in gathering information about you in order to sell you things, because it uses at least some of that data to put ads on Xbox Live even today; the reality is, user data is valuable and the Xbox One has a lot of access to you. And just because Microsoft might say that it won’t be listening to you or transmitting visual data about you, that’s vastly different than the idea that Microsoft can’t listen or watch. Console owners are forced to take Microsoft at its word, but what proof is there of what data is being gathered or not gathered, or used or not used?
Computing in the Cloud Means Computing with Someone Else
Another element worth discussing is Xbox One’s reliance on “the cloud” — remote servers that can store data, help handle computing jobs for certain functions, and take on other tasks.
Working in the cloud has the benefit of allowing Microsoft to expand the size of the Xbox One’s on-board hard drive by allowing users to save their games to the Internet, or to help users do things like browsing the web by taking some of the processing burden off the Xbox One itself. If half of a web page is processed in the cloud, that’s half that your Xbox One doesn’t need to process, and that means it can load the page faster.
We’re not really sure just how extensively Microsoft intends to use its cloud servers in terms of Xbox One functionality, but already it’s easy to see potential issues. When Amazon rolled out its Kindle Fire tablet, for example, it also included its Silk cloud processing technology. Silk helps the Kindle Fire process web pages exactly as described above — the tablet gets help loading pages from a cloud server, which allows the tablet to include lower-end hardware and thus helps Amazon make the device cheaper for consumers. But the Kindle Fire kicked off privacy debates with this cloud processing, because it essentially meant that Amazon’s servers get a load of everything you do online with your Kindle Fire, and could easily keep records about your browsing habits.
Microsoft hasn’t explained everything you’ll be doing with the cloud, of course, but anything more than saving data starts to get a little cumbersome. Even with saving your data to Microsoft’s cloud, that’s some bit of material that belongs to you that Microsoft can potentially see, because it owns the Xbox One and it owns the servers. All these things might be small or relatively inconsequential when considered separately; take them together, and Microsoft may be able to get a really clear picture about who you are and what you do.
While Microsoft is being coy about its Internet connectivity requirements, we know the Xbox One “requires an Internet connection.” Microsoft Corporate Vice President Phil Harrison told Kotaku the Xbox One will connect with Microsoft’s servers at least once every 24 hours when you’re using it. So at least every once in a while, you’re checking in with Microsoft’s servers and whatever data the Xbox One gathers will be transmitted back to them.