Is Your Television Watching You?
Could the federal government find out what you're watching on TV? Even if you're not the subject of a criminal investigation? If you're a satellite TV or TiVo owner, the answer is yes, according to legal experts and industry officials.
Under the USA Patriot Act, passed a month after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the feds can force a noncable TV operator to disclose every show you have watched. The government just has to say that the request is related to a terrorism investigation, said Jay Stanley, a technology expert for the American Civil Liberties Union. Under Section 215 of the Act, you don't even have to be the target of the investigation. Plus, your TV provider is prohibited from informing you that the feds have requested your personal information.
"The language is very broad," Mr. Stanley said. "It allows the FBI to force a company to turn over the records of their customers. They don't even need a reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior."
David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington think tank, said the Cable Act of 1984 gives cable operators greater protection against the Patriot Act. Cable companies do not have to release an individual's records unless the feds show that the person is the target of a criminal investigation. Even then, the individual must be notified of the request, which he can then challenge in court. "The Patriot Act does not override the Cable Act," Mr. Sobel said.
You couldn't blame the satellite TV industry for feeling a little vulnerable these days. DirecTV, for instance, collects a large amount of individual data, such as program package orders, pay-per-view orders and even online purchases via the DirecTV-Wink interactive shopping service. The Justice Department could ask DirecTV to disclose whether you subscribe to Playboy or purchased Viagra if it would help an investigation.
But Andy Wright, president of the Satellite Broadcasting Communications Association, the industry's trade group, said he does not believe the feds will make frivolous requests. "They still have to issue a subpoena to get the data," he said. "Even in today's environment, I can't imagine a judge would approve a subpoena that is not warranted."
However, the ACLU's Mr. Stanley said the Patriot Act is different because the government can get the order from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court rather than a judicial court. "It's not like a subpoena. The standards are much weaker than in a criminal case," Mr. Stanley said.
But Mr. Wright contended that satellite TV viewers should not be concerned that they will be subjected to improper searches. The satellite chief added he's not sure the federal government needs to give dish owners the same protection as cable viewers. "I would have to study that more before supporting that," Mr. Wright said.
The Patriot Act, which Attorney General John Ashcroft said is crucial to fighting terrorism in the United States, has scared many civil libertarians. However, the possibility that the feds could use the law to learn about your viewing habits has been overlooked until now. The invasion of privacy might be well intentioned and perhaps even necessary. However, there's also the danger that an overzealous team of agents will abuse the law. In the spirit of the early patriots, all Americans need to remain vigilant.
Interactive Television Spies on Viewers
New book, lawmaker expose Big Brother
technology in the living room
With interactive television every click of your remote control goes into a database. This is called your TV set’s “click stream”, and it can be analyzed to create a surprisingly sophisticated picture of who you are and what motivates you (sometimes called “telegraphics”). Such profiles of households or individuals can then be used to target consumers with direct marketing techniques, through their television, in the mail or over the phone. Your television will be able to show you something, monitor how you respond, and then show you something else, working on you over time until it you exhibit the desired behavior.
Even if you never do order a pizza through your TV set or click or help your child play with an interactive commercial, your iTV set will be ‘interactive’ all the same. What matters is your “click stream” and the people you have never met who will soon be studying it. Such observation and manipulation is not marginal or accidental. From the beginning, it has been built into the designs of interactive systems and the revenue columns of these companies’ business plans.
The spy in your living room
Monday July 9, 2001
The spy in your living room
Set-top boxes can tell corporate HQ what you watched last night and even what you bought online. And now the interactive TV industry wants to sell that data to advertisers. Sean Dodson on a fight for privacy
The spy in your refrigerator...
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International
To imagine the year 2020, forget for a moment the cumbersome technology portrayed in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. If present trends continue, surveillance tools will be so seamlessly integrated in our environment that we won’t even notice the constant intrusion into our privacy.
Closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) may be the most obvious–and onerous–future intrusion. As is already the case in Britain (see p. 36), cameras will become a fixed component in the design of modern urban centres, new housing areas, public buildings and the road system (thanks to a massive network of linked number plate recognition cameras). Perhaps it is only a matter of time before legal and community pressures force the cameras into our homes.
As visual surveillance becomes ubiquitous, so will mass surveillance of Internet and telephone activity. American and European law enforcement agencies have already laid the foundations for a massive eavesdropping system capable of intercepting all mobile phones, Internet communications, fax messages and pagers throughout Europe. The plan, known as Enfopol 98, has been drawn up in secret by police and justice officials as part of a strategy to create a “seamless” web of telecommunications surveillance that will one day cross all national boundaries–touching citizens everywhere.
The strategy will oblige all ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and telephone networks to provide agencies with “real time, full time” access to all communications, regardless of the country of origin. All new communications media, including interactive cable television, will be required to do the same.
Enfopol will be aided by a subject-tagging system capable of continually tracking targeted individuals. Known as the “International User Requirements for Interception” (IUR), the system, which is currently being designed, will include not only the names, addresses and phone numbers of targets and associates, but email addresses, credit card details, PINs, passwords and even geographic data from mobile phones.
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