Microsoft’s Xbox One: Always on, always watching?

Xbox’s Kinect marketing slogan has, until now, been: “You are the controller.” For the upcoming Xbox One Kinect, that line may as well read: “You are the key to unlocking your media rights.”

Microsoft wants to make consumers’ access to digital services conditional not just on conventional upfront payment but also on their actual presence in front of TV.

By having their internet connection checked daily and by being monitored through Kinect’s sensors, an Xbox user’s body could become his or her access pass to online content. But, in a world shaken by Prism surveillance revelations, is it less likely consumers will consent to this kind of at-home observation?

Some gamers are creeped out that all Xbox Ones must go online every day to comply with a liberal new set of rights the console grants users to play games on their friends’ consoles and to play previously-used titles. Even offline games will be blocked without a daily check-in.

In a recently-published patent, the Kinect camera would monitor that users are dutifully watching TV programming or advertising all the way through, incentivising them for doing so with rewards like money-off coupons or online virtual goods.

Another patent would forbid the playback of certain content like movies when Kinect’s camera identifies too many viewers in the room.

All such techniques depend on physically-identified presence to qualify for access. And you can see why Microsoft would want to introduce these techniques. Allowing the TV to view the viewer gives advertisers specific certainty over their investment, supports bodily engagement in ads and lets viewers earn badges for viewing entire series. Counting living room occupants before a film can play back effectively introduces a “per-user” license to at-home media downloads, allowing studios to charge individual fees at home in the same way they do in cinemas. Whilst that sounds like a raw deal, it could bring Hollywood blockbusters to living rooms on the same day as theatrical release.

But Microsoft, data from whose online services including Skype has reportedly been snooped by the US National Security Agency, must now tread very carefully before going ahead. If depictions of the “Prism” spy programme are accurate, then it necessarily raises the fearful prospect that the US government could monitor people in their homes via the new Kinect camera.

This, of course, sounds so paranoid as to be fantastical. But then, the idea of a global government network slurping internet communications might have been considered fanciful before the recent reports. And even the most over-stated perception of wrongdoing is all that matters in the consumer mindset.

Prism could change the whole privacy environment when it comes to users’ tolerance for online monitoring. As consumers, users have poured self-identifying data of unimaginable quantities in to the databases of commercial operators with remarkable degrees of comfort, creating billion-dollar companies. But, as citizens, users baulk the moment state actors like governments are believed to have acquired the same data.

Digital services must now operate in a post-Prism landscape in which consumers have a keener sense of the worst-case distribution scenario for their private data. For consumers now, the unfortunate current reality is that the private data they entrust to a select few may very well end up somewhere unintended, even as their trusted parties deny ever passing it on.

It is an issue already grappled with by the utilities industry, which is keen to implement smart energy meters that send real-time consumption data back to headquarters but which is battling network security professionals’ worry that the patterns in such data could leave unoccupied homes open to burglary should it fall in to the wrong hands.

For Microsoft, the corresponding challenge is in repeating its assertion that Kinect will not continually watch or listen to users when, in conspiracy theory, it certainly could.

Its at-home body media monitoring ambitions are not yet a reality. The techniques in the Kinect patents have not been announced for inclusion in Xbox One, nor are the entertainment studios yet ready to capitalise on the prospects.

But outfits like Microsoft must now heed users’ heightened suspicion before they take any steps nearer to such projects. As one gamer wrote online this week: “Invasion of privacy is so much more important than wanting to play Killer Instinct.”