Big Brother in the Living Room?

Talk about a tempest in a teapot.

A Comcast executive’s revelation at Digital Living Room last week that the cable company is testing cameras in its DVRs in the living room set off a storm of angry blogs.

It began when Chris Albrecht of NewTeevee quoted Gerard Kunkel, Comcast’s senior vice president of user experience, as saying the company is testing cameras that recognize you when you turn on your cable box, allowing your TV set to make recommendations about what you might want to see, or to serve up tailored ads.

The angry comments started on the New Teevee site, ranging from "officially the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard in my life" to "Comcast is trying to make Orwell’s vision of 1984 come true". From there the commentary spread to PC World  (Comcast’s Creepy Experiment) and the New York Times, among other places).

Kunkel responded to the outcry with a posting of his own on NewTeeVee, emphasizing that Comcast’s experimental camera-based gesture recognition device is "in no way designed to – or capable of – monitoring your living room".

The incident illustrates once again the morass cable companies and telephone companies are potentially stepping into as they continue to offer "triple play" services that combine TV, high-speed Internet and telephone service. Even if Comcast’s system doesn’t currently offer in-room monitoring, it clearly could without too much modification. And you can bet that when it becomes a reality, the government in its search for "terrorists" will be close behind.

It’s only fair to mention, however, that panelists at the show also talked about more benign uses for such technologies: monitoring a home when a family is away, for example, or allowing family members to monitor elderly parents.

As we move toward two-way video communication in the home, these issues are going to only intensify. It’s good to have an early heads-up.

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About Michael Stroud

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