Brooke asks the Boston Globe's Hiawatha Bray the key question about the We Are Watching You Act: who, exactly, is watching us -- and how?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hiawatha Bray is a tech reporter for the Boston Globe, with some insight into how Verizon had proposed to use that device, for which it failed to get that patent.
HIAWATHA BRAY: Suppose you and your wife are watching TV and you're having an argument. A computer at Verizon headquarters could say, they’re having an argument, and they could flash an ad on the screen for marriage counseling –
- or Prozac. And this is in the patent application [LAUGHS] that Verizon submitted. Conversely, you could have a situation where you're on the couch and you're basically getting romantic, and you could see an ad flash on your TV for contraceptives or an ad for a vacation resort in a romantic location. And it would all be done by computers that are smart enough to recognize the visual and audio signals that you’re giving as cues to your emotional and mental state.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what’s real right now?
HIAWATHA BRAY: Microsoft, in 2011, filed a patent for a system that would use the camera on the Kinect, basically to keep track of whether or not you stayed in front of the TV while a commercial was on. If you got up and left the room, it would know. But the reason why they would do it is they would basically say, we can give you rewards, like discounts on Xbox games or free movies on one of our video services, if you sit through the commercial, and the camera will tell us whether or not you did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
HIAWATHA BRAY: That’s what they had in mind. Again, let me be very clear on this. Nobody is doing any of this stuff, yet. The problem that Rep. Capuano and Rep. Jones are worried about is that if this starts to happen, it’ll just sort of creep up on us, and we won't have a chance to really stop and think about the implications of it, until one day we wake up and all our devices are working this way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean by “all of our devices”? Will our toasters soon be watching us for signs of hunger?
HIAWATHA BRAY: Anything that’s got electrons running through it can have a little chip embedded in it that gives it a certain measure of intelligence. It’s called the Internet of Things. It's a world in which machines talk to each other over computer networks, and they don't even have to have human beings involved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned in your piece that Verizon wanted this technology in order to better target their ads. Aren't there some advantages here?
HIAWATHA BRAY: Absolutely, there’s no question that there are advantages. We can be safer, more secure. There are so many ways in which this can help us. The question is where do we want to draw the line in terms of our privacy, the idea that we want to be monitored and analyzed and measured literally every moment of our lives? Some of us find this a little off-putting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't want someone watching you hangin’ out on your couch watchin’ TV.
HIAWATHA BRAY: Yeah! I don't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what you describe is not a “someone” but a sensor who won't be communicating the condition of your boxer shorts to any other human being.
HIAWATHA BRAY: All of this stuff gets recorded. Everything gets saved. They’re not necessarily saving, you know, every image that they capture from your living room, but anything that gets captured by any of these sensors get saved somewhere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, obviously, with NSA surveillance in the news, you have to ask what happens if the government demands to be shown all this living room footage? Does this act that began this discussion, the We Are Watching You Act, address this question? What does it do?
HIAWATHA BRAY: What they're saying is that consumers A) need the right to opt out and B) even if they don't opt out, they need to be aware of what's actually happening. And basically what the act would say is even if you opt in, whenever this device is actually tracking what you're doing, you will have a box or some kind of image on your TV screen at all times, saying “We we are watching you” [LAUGHS] because you got to remember, say you're sitting at home, you’re watching TV, it's watching you. Now your neighbor comes over. Your neighbor didn't sign on for this. What happens when they walk into the living room? Shouldn't they be warned that, you know, somebody's gonna notice they’re wearing a dirty t-shirt and they’re picking their nose or something?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just to avoid the box on the screen, wouldn’t just about everybody opt out? And is that what we want?
HIAWATHA BRAY: Well, that’s a good question, and – and, you know, I, I got the impression from talking to Congressman Capuano that he might be willing to be flexible about this, ‘cause he made it clear, he’s not trying to stamp this out. He's just trying to make sure that consumers know what they're getting into.
But the other thing to keep in mind is look at the world we live in now. Once upon a time, people would have said, gee, a computer network where you just go online, you put up pictures of yourself in your most intimate moments and you tell people the story of your life and everything about yourself, so that millions of other people can read it, nobody’s ever gonna want to do that.
It turns out that people are far more tolerant of revealing facts about themselves than anyone would have thought. And so, if they’re given this option to opt out, and not just that, if they're given a reward for opting in, there’ll be a significant number of people who will say, sure, go ahead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how significant do you think this bill is? Is it going to start the conversation?
HIAWATHA BRAY: People all over the country are starting to say, hey, wait a minute, all these companies are collecting amazing amounts of information about us, the government is turning around and demanding that information, and we've got to make sure A) that the companies secure this information better, B) that they get permission from the consumer before they collect it in the first place, and C) that the government’s gonna have to jump through a bunch of hoops before they can get it.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hiawatha, thank you very much.
HIAWATHA BRAY: Hey, you’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hiawatha Bray is a tech reporter for the Boston Globe.
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