Posted on May 25, 2013, Phil Hornshaw Xbox One, Kinect Present a Bundle of Privacy Concerns
As Microsoft explained during the reveal event, Kinect is key to the functionality of Xbox One. In fact, it’ll be required to use the console. And it allows you to control a number of functions using voice commands and hand gestures, so we can expect it to be an extremely sensitive piece of equipment. According to Microsoft, Kinect will have the ability to recognize the voices of different users and customize your Xbox One experience to you specifically when you power it on. As you walk into the room and say “Xbox, on,” for example, the console might remember you were last playing a game and load it up for you.
The presentation showed users fast-switching between different apps on the Xbox One using only voice commands, and even controlling menus with hand gestures in the air in front of the console. To hear Microsoft tell it, the Kinect is a powerful camera and voice sensor with a number of different functions.
But with the Xbox One’s new Kinect come a number of potential problems and worries. To start, the Kinect is always listening for specific voice cues, even when the device is off: specifically, the words “Xbox, on.” That in and of itself might not be too troubling — Microsoft Corporate Vice President Phil Harrison told Eurogamer the Kinect listens only for those specific cues and sends no information back to Microsoft, so you might not need to worry so much about the company listening in on you — but it does start to lead to greater implications.
Namely, those implications are that data about you can be gathered by the Xbox One and sent back to Microsoft incredibly easily, all the time.
A Camera on Your Life
The Kinect is essentially a video camera. It uses certain portions of the light spectrum to allow for reading and mapping your motions in 3-D space, which can then be translated into game input. But it also functions as a standard video camera capable of capturing images and relaying them to your screen. We’ve seen this with the original Kinect, which already supports features such as video chat, and the Xbox One’s integration of Skype suggests you’ll see more useful, potentially more ubiquitous video capture features.
When your Xbox One is on, the Kinect is on (and even when your Xbox One is off, the Kinect is still listening). It must be connected to the console for the console to work, Microsoft has said. And when it’s on, it is both listening to you and watching you, which allows you to control the Xbox One in a number of ways or input controls into games.
But we know that Microsoft has at least thought about using the Kinect for other functions. A patent filed last year, for example, suggests the Kinect could be used to take inventory of how many people are in a room when you rent a movie on your Xbox One’s digital marketplace, and charge you more if there are too many participants.
Understand, that patent may never be put into effect: Tech companies file patents all the time for technology they never end up developing, and often just keep patents filed to sell licenses to other companies when they develop new technologies. So this filing is by no means a confirmation that the Kinect is going to be helping Microsoft charge you more for having too many people watching a movie.
But the patent does suggest the sensor can gather data on the situation in your living room and apply that data in real time to your transaction. Beyond the frustrations of that particular example situation above, it begs the question of what other data the Kinect camera will be gathering, or could be gathering.
The sensor is so powerful, Microsoft claims it can take your pulse. If so, surely it can see the label on the can of soda you’re drinking, or the brand stenciled on your T-shirt.