After Hours

Comcast considers creepy new addition to the set top box

Is Comcast considering a video feedback device for its set top box? The answer is yes, but how it intends to use it is the real question. In an interview with NewTeeVee's Chris Albrecht, Gerard Kunkle, Comcast's VP of user experience, mentioned a camera device that would identify the viewer and serve up programming and advertisements tailored to the individual. Now, he states that he was discussing a gesture feedback device. Either way, it is a little creepy.

I have never been one of the tinfoil hat crowd in the past, but that could change —especially in light of the comments made by Comcast's Gerard Kunkel, senior VP of user experience, to reporter Chris Albrecht of Mr. Kunkel mentioned an experiment with different camera technologies built into the cable box that would be able to tell who is in the room watching television.

From NewTeeVee:

The idea being that if you turn on your cable box, it recognizes you and pulls up shows already in your profile or makes recommendations. If parents are watching TV with their children, for example, parental controls could appear to block certain content from appearing on the screen. Kunkel also said this type of monitoring is the "holy grail" because it could help serve up specifically tailored ads. Yikes.

Kunkel said the system wouldn't be based on facial recognition, so there wouldn't be a picture of you on file (we hope). Instead, it would distinguish between different members of your household by recognizing body forms. He stressed that the system is still in the experimental phase, that there hasn't been consumer testing, and that any rollout "must add value" to the viewing experience beyond serving ads.

As a Comcast subscriber, I can't say that I am in favor at all with this idea. Without even going down the obvious road of "invasion of privacy," the sense of being constantly watched would be just a bit more than I could stand. And then the question of security has to be considered. If it can stream data from the set top box, how is it securing that stream? Who else could reasonably get to that stream? How could it be exploited?

From ITtoolbox:

As far back as 1998, Phrack had examples on how to hack a set top box to decode any signal coming off the system. With the advent of IPTV (Internet protocol delivered TV) and interactive TV the way to address and capture information off these systems is to have any access to the controlled private network that they operate on.

Everyone who has a set top box, has access to this controlled private network. This means that the controlled private network is truly private. It can be intercepted as well the data that is generated at some point t by your set top box when ordering movies is transmitted back to the cable tv office. That usually happens across the cable system, but can also be phoned in.

PBX hacking is too easy, and too common. But what about signals that are sent from the set top box to the cable tv company?

The good to know part about cable TV is that the signal is bi-directional, so it is possible to put a monitor on the line (which is illegal) and intercept the data that is crossing the cable line. Since you will be on a limited system (only access to your digital neighbors, depending on how the system is networked), it would be easy to subvert the cable infrastructure in your house, and literally monitor all the communications on your cable line from your digital neighbors, from IP to TCP/IP to VOIP, and the signal coming off the proposed embedded video camera in a system.

There's more, but you get the point.

After the initial story was published, public opinion poured in, and it wasn't the sound of happy, contented people. Amidst comments that ranged from "Pass the black tape" to "Pull the plug," Comcast's Gerard Kunkel tried to defuse the ire. Chris Albrecht not only responded, he updated the story.

From NewTeeVee:


Your article on "Comcast Cameras to Start Watching You" portrayed some assumptions that require correction and clarification. I want to be clear that in no way are we exploring any camera devices that would monitor customer behavior.

To gather information for your article on Comcast's exploration of cameras you picked up on my conversation with another conference attendee. The other attendee and I were deep in a conversation discussing a variety of input devices offered by a variety of vendors that Comcast is reviewing.

The camera-based gesture recognition device is in no way designed to — or capable of — monitoring your living room. These technologies are designed to allow simple navigation on a television set just as the Wii remote uses a camera to manage its much heralded gesture-based interactivity.

We are constantly exploring new technologies that better serve our customers. The goal is simple — a better user experience that allows the consumer to get ever increasing value out of their Comcast products.

As with any new technology, we carefully consider the consumer benefits. In fact, we do an enormous amount of consumer testing in advance of making a product decision such as this. I'm confident that a new technology like gesture-based navigation will be fully explored with consumers to understand the product's feature benefits — and of course, the value to the consumer.

Sincerely, Gerard Kunkel

I responded to Mr. Kunkel in our comment with the following:

Hi Mr. Kunkel,

Just to further clarify. After you granted me our initial video interview, you brought up the topic of Comcast knowing who was in the living room in a conversation between you, myself, and another conference attendee.

I actually left and came back to follow up on this point while you were talking with that same attendee. At this point, you were aware that I was a reporter and I took handwritten notes in front of you as we talked to make sure I had an accurate accounting of what you were saying.

I'd love to talk further with either you or someone else at Comcast to follow up on this story.

A person named Jenni Moyer, claiming to be from Comcast, posted a nearly identical message to Mr. Kunkel's on PC World's blog on this story. And frankly, I will be quite hurt if someone from Comcast doesn't post to this thread.

Whether the device is intended for consumer benefit is almost not the point. The question is how far are we willing to allow companies with whom we do business to invade our private space? I have a set top box. I have three. I have remotes for all of them. I even have a Harmony integrated remote. My viewing experience is just ducky, thanks. I don't need to gesture at the TV any more than I already do — and the gestures that I make are probably not ones that Comcast needs to see.

How about you? What do you think of Comcast or any other cable provider placing a camera in the set top box for any purpose?


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