Last week, a bill called the We Are Watching You Act was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives. It's meant to protect consumers from new technology that could monitor them as they watch TV or play video games. Brooke speaks to Rep. Walter Jones, one of the bill's cosponsors, about why he feels these regulations are necessary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. And I'm on hold with the office of Republican Congressman Walter Jones. Last week, he and his fellow representative, Democrat Mike Capuano introduced the We Are Watching You Act, a response to Verizon's attempt back in 2011 to patent a device that would watch you, as you watch TV, in order to serve you more relevant ads. Verizon failed to get its patent, but that won’t stop this kind of technology. Microsoft has plans to release a new Xbox with a voice and motion sensor that stays on even when your TV is off.
WOMAN: Okay, sorry about that. Here he is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, Congressman?
REP. WALTER JONES: Walter Jones speaking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hi. So what does the We Are Watching You Act do?
REP. WALTER JONES: Well, the whole thing is Mike Capuano who’s a friend of mine – I’m a conservative Republican and he’s a liberal Democrat, but we’ve been friends for 12, 14 years - and he came to me two weeks ago and he said, Walt, said, do you realize that some of the DVRs and TVs will be set up with devices that can – excuse me for saying it this way, but it’s the way I see it – spy on the people that bought the product, without them knowing it. I said, I said, Mike, you’re kidding me. No – he said, no. He said, I’m gonna put a bill in. I said, well, I want to be on it.
And what this bill does is say that if you’re gonna have these products, you must display a sign that explains that the device is in the television or DVR.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’ve been talking about how the NSA Surveillance Program has been running for at least ten years and we’re just now having a real conversation about it, or at least we’re trying to. The technology that you’re trying to place some restrictions on doesn’t even really exist yet. So this bill is really an effort to jumpstart a conversation.
REP. WALTER JONES: Well, that’s a good way to put it. Brooke. All this really is doing is, in my opinion, is trying to protect the consumer. And let me just read this very quick. It’s one sentence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
REP. WALTER JONES: “The new technology would watch and listen to consumers with a camera and microphone, determine age and gender, note thermal images and include facial recognition capabilities.” And I’m not an extremist but that’s another example of the federal government authorizing the private sector to get into our business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Let me comb through that.
[REP. JONES LAUGHS]
You wrote, “When the government has an unfortunate history of secretly collecting private citizens’ information from technology providers, we must ensure that safeguards are in place to protect American rights.” So let me ask you.
REP. WALTER JONES: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this about the fact that these companies might one day have to turn this information over to the government?
REP. WALTER JONES: To me, as you well know, the distrust of Washington is as – is the worst it’s ever been. Last week I heard the approval rating of Congress was 10 percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
REP. WALTER JONES: And then we had the NSA issue with Mr. Snowden. And Mike and I just said, the timing is right. We [LAUGHS] want the American people to know that we’re ready to take the lead and fight with them for their protection of their privacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And are you as worried about corporate intrusion as government intrusion?
REP. WALTER JONES: Well, you never know - once the camel has the nose under the tent, you never know where it goes. And I know that’s a trite statement, but it’s true. But if you full disclose to that purchaser of that product that they’re gonna watch what you do in your living room - or bedroom – then that’s fine. If you want to buy it, go ahead and buy it. We’re not trying to stop the person from purchasing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were you conscious of making the title of your bill scary, you know, “we are watching you”?
REP. WALTER JONES: No, Mike talked with me about it, and it was his idea. I said, no I think that’s great.
Brooke, sometimes you just have to wake the American people up, ‘cause the people are worried about jobs, keeping jobs, about kids getting out of college, can’t find jobs, just a number of issues, so I’m not being critical. But I’m just saying that we selected that title because we wanted to wake up America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congressman, thank you very much.
REP. WALTER JONES: Thank you so much, bye-bye.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: North Carolina Republican Walter Jones.