Xbox Won’t Gather Personal Data — If You Tell It Not To
The launch of Microsoft’s new Xbox One was dominated by controversy. Would the console require an “always-on” internet connection? Would players be able to buy and sell used games? This afternoon, Microsoft updated the “news” section of the Xbox One website to clarify its stance on these issues. As was widely rumored, the console will require an internet connection every 24 hours in order to play games. The Xbox One will also allow for used games in some format, although the exact nature of the situation is still unclear.
There is, however, a third key issue: the privacy concerns that surround the Xbox One, and its Kinect peripheral in particular. Microsoft has confirmed that the Xbox One will “require” the use of a Kinect. Given the sophisticated nature of the Kinect camera system, this could potentially give Microsoft access to all sorts of sensitive information about their customers — not just audio and video, but also valuable data about consumer behavior: how they enjoy media, which brands they prefer, etc. German newspaper Der Spiegel published an interview with German federal data protection commissioner Peter Schaar in which he called Microsoft’s plan a “twisted nightmare.”
As part of the statement published today, Microsoft attempted to reassure consumers and regulators alike. The company claims that Xbox users will be able to “determine how responsive and personalized your Xbox One is to you and your family during setup.” In other words, it’s up to users to protect themselves: “the system will navigate you through key privacy options, like automatic or manual sign in, privacy settings, and clear notifications about how data is used.”
At the very least, the company promises not to eavesdrop on you: “when Xbox One is on and you’re simply having a conversation in your living room, your conversation is not being recorded or uploaded.” Users not interested in the Kinect functionality can also opt to turn it off, although “some apps and games may require Kinect functionality to operate.” Bizarrely, the Microsoft statement also distinguishes between the Kinect being “off” and simply “paused,” without really explaining what that distinction means. The confusion implies that the people behind the Xbox One can’t really imagine wanting to turn the Kinect off for more than just a few minutes — a brief pause.
Today’s statement also directly addresses concerns about data privacy directly. According to Microsoft, “you can play games or enjoy applications that use data, such as videos, photos, facial expressions, heart rate and more, but this data will not leave your Xbox One without your explicit permission.” That prepositional phrase at the end “without your explicit permission” — is crucial. Microsoft clearly plans to track and leverage user data — it’s just going to ask your permission first. Coupled with plans to “navigate” users through “key privacy options,” this phrasing suggests that the ball is very in the Xbox One user’s court when it comes to privacy.
Just how easy will these privacy options and permissions be to understand, given that Microsoft has a huge financial interest in people surrendering their data? Judging by the past behavior of the technology industry, we’re guessing “not very.” Consider Facebook’s constantly shifting privacy protections, or Google’s inexhaustible hunger for data, or the interminable, equivocal EULA’s gamers are required to agree to every time they use a new piece of hardware or software. Tech-savvy consumers dedicated to preserving their privacy will no doubt be able to protect themselves using the Xbox One’s’ suite of options, but what about everybody else? Microsoft has made it clear that they’re aiming, at least in part, for the NFL and Call of Duty crowd, who may not bother or care.
Judging by today’s statement, consumers can be confident that the Xbox One will not be taking pictures of you in your underwear. But when it comes to the more subtle aspects of technological privacy, if you give it an inch, it’s ready to take a mile. Game Front will monitor this story as it develops.