Verizon Plans on “Peeping” into Living Rooms

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Set top box use facial-recognition technology for targeted ads based on viewers’ gender or whether they are adults or kids.

Advancement in technology has been termed as a “double edged sword” by many scholars. This point is more accurate when we see that privacy is overlooked for the mighty dollar. First, it was at shops where video cameras were fixed on mannequins to observe the shoppers behavior as they browse through fashion boutiques. Now, marketers are planning on taking this a couple of steps forward.

In an application for patent submitted by Verizon, the company proposes to use technology to serve targeted advertisements. And they plan on doing this in a most inappropriate manner of spying. It is stated in their application that marketers can provide targeted advertisements based on the activity in which the person is engaged with.

The application was filed in May 2011, it was only published last week. By American law, all patent applications are published after 18 months.  It should be noted that Verizon is not the first company to think of a creepy use for a Set-Top Box. Comcast patented similar monitoring technology in 2008 for recommending content based on people it recognizes in the room; Google proposed yet another patent for Google TV that would use audio and video recorders to figure out how many people in a room are watching the current broadcast.

The justification on the application makes people very uneasy. The company says that the content sensitive DVR’s use in a living room might even help world population. It stated that when the DVR hears sounds of cuddling it would prompt ads for contraceptives. Wonder who would take those ads seriously. Further if it hears arguments within couples it would prompt ads for marriage counseling.

Many couples we spoke to regarding the “cuddling” aspect were, pretty upset. Some said that in the rat race of work and life the time they spend to cuddle is very important. Having one’s TV dictate contraception, sounds weird. “I would feel like my mum was in the room,” a definite non aphrodisiac.

“It’s like the TV is telling you what to do and what not do,” Sarah Mohammed a student in Dubai said. “We watch TV for entertainment, for relaxation. Not to have our every move scrutinized. We have parents for that!”

“If detection facility detects one or more words spoken by a user (e.g., while talking to another user within the same room or on the telephone), advertising facility may utilize the one or more words spoken by the user to search for and/or select an advertisement associated with the one or more words,” Verizon states in the patent application.

The patent goes on to say that the sensors would also be able to determine if a viewer is exercising, eating, laughing, singing, or playing a musical instrument, and target ads to viewers based on their mood. It also could use sensors to determine what type of pets or inanimate objects are in the room. The system can also “dynamically adjust parental control features” if it detects that young children are present in the room.

“It sounds scary, but as a mother of three teenagers, this would be another watchful eye on my behalf,” Saeeda Rashid a mother in Ajman told us. “If such a system would come to the UAE it would be much better as the TV would adjust the content based on the viewers. I need not worry about what my children are watching.”

Whatever said and done, the main question in peoples mind is “Could this technology be morally correct?” There is only limited recognition in the law that there are some places into which surveillance cameras is not allowed to intrude. The bathroom being one of them.

“What if there is a bathroom attached to the living room as in the case with small apartments. If someone is taking a leak, (the door being open) whilst watching TV. The comments made from the loo can be heard by the DVR. Would this not cross the privacy border?” Michael James a writer based in Manchester told Arabian Gazette.

Overall these uses of cameras and mics frighten customers. Well, the only consolation is that all of these patents have yet to be put to use.

The Patent war is taking of completely different angle. Before we had corporations patenting a product  or service after it becoming a reality or when legal issues rose. However with Verizon we see a shift in the thinking. Now corporation are patenting ideas which might not even happen or be acceptable to the consumer. So why spend so much finance on such a thing?

One reason for companies to patent ideas is to protect themselves from future infringements, even if they never make it into actual products.

We spoke to a tech and marketing expert at an international company who wants to remain anonymous. He said that this is not new. Many companies have been patenting their products before consumers are aware of this. Companies use the 18 month waiting period to obtain the maximum advantage. They are able to market their products and also avoid any legal issues or impersonators.

Peoples privacy is important. Respecting that privacy is the foundation of any good community or society. “Corporations who want to make money out of people’s privacy are literally criminals” James McPearson an environmentalist told Arabian Gazette. “Why don’t we simply make all our brick walls transparent so that we get to intrude into each others privacy. Doesn’t sound nice, does it? Well that’s how I feel when I hear about companies like Verizon and its unbelievable patent. We are not living in George Owell’s Oceania!”

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Google Privacy Humor.   Image credit: http://geekandpoke.typepad.com/

 

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