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.

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17 Comments on Xbox One, Kinect Present a Bundle of Privacy Concerns

Luther

On May 25, 2013 at 12:29 pm

There is no way I’ll be buying one that’s for sure.

Axetwin

On May 25, 2013 at 12:30 pm

In my opinion, the privacy rights will be determined by one simple question. Will the XBone still work if the camera is covered up? If I’m playing a non-Kinect focused game, will the system suspend all activity if I cover up the camera? More importantly, if the XBone is “off” and I cover up the camera, will the machine turn itself on just to tell me to uncover the camera?

These two things will be the tell-tale signs of what Microsoft’s intent is with the making the Kinect mandatory.

Xbox dONE

On May 25, 2013 at 3:45 pm

I won’t be buying one either. all that noise.

T Wal

On May 25, 2013 at 3:52 pm

@Axetwin: Now that right there is a good question…that sure would be more than a little incriminating if you covered up the camera and the Xbox said “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave…”

gasmaskangel

On May 25, 2013 at 5:16 pm

It’s amazing that everything I read about the Xbone makes me more and more determined to never have one darken my door. You’d think they’d have at least one thing that I both care about and doesn’t cheese me off.

Also, what did we do to make Microsoft think that anyone actually liked the kinect? I don’t remember them selling that well, but them it’s possible that I’m completely dead wrong.

Soulseller

On May 25, 2013 at 8:21 pm

I can see the Kinect being used by Microsoft to collect viewing data (i.e. number of people watching, are they looking away/talking,happy/sad, even arousal level/heart rate) to sell to advertisers and TV companies. This
would be another reason why the once every 24HR check in would be necessary. A Microsoft executive has already said biometric data collected would be used for research and development purposes but would
not be individually identifiable.

Derek

On May 25, 2013 at 10:40 pm

How can I trust Microsoft’s to not record my conversations or video of my family room and send it to their servers when they were just caught red handed reading people’s Skype conversations which they had claimed were encrypted end-to-end?

I don’t care if its for anonymous data mining, targeted advertising, or to help find criminals. There is no way in hell I would ever allow a product like that in my house if the camera and microphone couldn’t be disabled.

SevenCell

On May 25, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Just slap a picture of Justin Bieber in front of the camera and use the controller.

quicktooth

On May 26, 2013 at 2:19 am

Big Brother is actually watching. It’s soul crushing that it’s not some dictatorship imposing this on people, but a for-profit corporation that thinks it can actually SELL it to people. That implies people will actually opt in. We don’t give doctors, nurses, or anyone else this much access to this much of our lives. And doctors and nurses and so on have professional associations and accreditation that keeps track of whether they abuse your information. Microsoft has- shareholders that demand it turns a profit. You have to be specially talented somehow to fall for this scam. No one should have that much power or access. As an aside, imagine if this was some major government doing this. Think about how you’d react. Now remember this corporation has NO interest in you personally, and that their anti-consumer stance and greed-as-motivation are well known.

lol

On May 26, 2013 at 4:47 am

Hmmmm. So gamers don’t mind posting endlessly about their worthless lives on Facebook or showing their d*cks to children on Chatroulette on a daily basis, but now all of a sudden their concerned about privacy when Microsoft’s involved. Presumably if it was EA they’d be even more minstrel about it. XD

Show me a survey that says the majority oppose Xbox One. Until then we can assume that everyone else likes it and GameFail (l)users are just crying again cos there still butthurt over ME3. llolollol

Shyfty

On May 26, 2013 at 10:42 am

This is some serious “conspiracy theory” right here. Why not mention that the NSA has the capabilities of monitoring all internet data streams, and could use the xobx protocols to listen in on your living room – spying on you every day, listening for key words and waiting to kick in your door.

How bout we waiting for some actual freaking info before we start all this BS about what the Xbox One is actually all about.

Bercilak

On May 26, 2013 at 7:32 pm

This monstrous invader of privacy will NEVER find its way into my living room. Screw you, Microsoft.

quicktooth

On May 27, 2013 at 2:22 am

@lol- A good point! Except that I don’t use Facebook, twitter, tumbler, and so on. And I haven’t heard of Chatroulette, and wouldn’t expose myself under any circumstances anyway. Because I don’t want to shove all my private stuff out into the world for all to see. Also (although this is a bit of a cop out), I’d like to mention I know a number of people who use facebook etc ONLY to arrange meetings, and DON’T put up extensive and banal accounts of their daily lives. I don’t use it at all, because of it’s terrible history of protecting user data. I’m so happy you’re not (only) rampantly embarrassing yourself at all times now! Thanks for joining the conversation.

Michael

On May 27, 2013 at 12:45 pm

What gamers should do is pack a bag and head to E3 and protest outside its the only way we will get heard. With signs saying:

WE THE CONSUMER THAT HAS BEEN KEEPING YOUR BUSINESS AFLOAT WILL REQUIRE THE FOLLOWING FEATURES.

1.NO KINECT
2.NO BLOCKING USED GAMES
3.NO DRM
4.NO BLOCKING BACKWARDS COMPATIBILITY
5.NO BLOCKING PSN AND LIVE PURCHASES
6.NO ALWAYS ONLINE
7.NO CAMERAS
8.NO TV
9.NO BLOCKING INDIE DEVELOPMENT
10.RELEASE NEW GAMES

R-man

On May 29, 2013 at 7:44 am

@Lol… You can look up a couple polls on google… and all the polls I’ve seen thus far have shown a majority oppose the Xbox One or just prefer other options over the XOne… Also, I don’t have Facebook because it’s useless to me and I began to be not so comfortable with all the possible privacy concerns.

http://www.digitalspy.com/gaming/news/a484584/xbox-one-vs-ps4-poll-which-is-your-most-anticipated-next-gen-console.html
http://www.businessinsider.com/poll-will-you-buy-an-xbox-one-or-playstation-4-2013-5
http://www.gamespot.com/forums/topic/29396535/xbox-one-or-playstation-4-poll
http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=71b_1369812232
http://www.redmondpie.com/ps4-vs-xbox-one-which-next-gen-console-are-you-excited-about-the-most-poll/

FW

On July 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm

This is a well-written article, and more needs to be said about this. MS has backed off the DRM and required internet connection, but for me that was a small concern. Kinect is a much bigger concern. I will not allow my children to be subjected to data collection and targeted advertising from the moment they are born. I have no interest in switching quickly from TV to music to games, as I already have other tech that plays those things and I still have a 10-second attention span. I have no need for Skype, and I will not invite both Skype and MS, both of whom were outed in the NSA scandal, into my living room so easily.

In short, I have been a long-time and loyal Xbox customer, but I will buy no console that requires me to connect a monitoring device to play. I’m switching to PS4 unless the Kinect requirement is dropped, end of story.

Rose

On August 21, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Open the pod bay doors, Hal!