Microsoft announced the next generation of its gaming console today, called the Xbox One. Among the new features are biometrics that promise to know you inside and out, which raise some serious privacy concerns. We’ll take you through them one by one.
The Xbox One has a lot of new features, including more powerful hardware that integrates with TV, a game DVR that always records your gaming so you can upload highlights later, and dual-screen capability, letting you do things like have a browser window open alongside a game screen (so you can look at a walkthrough or tweet about a game while you’re playing it).
Biometrics: voice activation and facial recognition
Every Xbox One will come with a Kinect, an accessory that tracks players’ movements to tie what you’re doing in your living room to what’s happening in-game. It’s been especially popular with dance and fitness games like Dance Central and Your Shape. The Kinect’s built-in HD camera has 60% more field of vision this time around and “can see fine details like fingers and facial features.” It can track up to 6 people at once, 4 more than the previous Kinect model.
The Kinect will also be able to detect heart rate, which will be helpful during those fitness games to check if you’re working as hard as you should be (or if your heart suddenly stops beating, will the super intelligent Kinect call an ambulence for you?)
Voice recognition will let users navigate Xbox and TV menus without lifting a finger…unless they prefer to use gestures instead. Users will say “Xbox On” to turn on the system, which will not only turn on the Xbox but identify who’s talking. We imagine voice and facial recognition will also support security features, such as unlocking user profiles or associated accounts.
The privacy implications: Microsoft, game companies, and advertisers will know exactly who’s sitting in front of the TV. They’ll know your voice, your face, the games you like to play, the TV shows you watch, the music you have on the Xbox’s hard drive, and the ads you see. It could enable a new era of targeted ads that are even more accurate because they’ll change with whoever’s using the TV. Microsoft has already filed a “living room snooping patent” that detects how many people are watching and makes them buy access to content, like movies, depending on how many eyes there are. Other companies are busily patenting ad targeting based on monitoring the conversations you have around the TV, which listens for who’s talking, the tone of the conversation, and the words used.
More personalized Xbox Live matching
Xbox’s popular community for online play, Xbox Live, typically matches players based on things like wireless connectivity, skill level, and geographic location. Now the new Smart Match will be based not just on the game you’re looking to play, but on other, more personal things about you, including the movies, TV shows, and music you like, along with your language and reputation.
The privacy implications: We aren’t yet clear on what “reputation” means, but we assume it’s an attempt to make people play nice on Xbox live instead of the usual insults about each other’s sexual orientation and gaming ability (if you’ve ever played Call of Duty online, you know what we mean). In many cases, monitoring reputation means tying a person’s real name, or at least a persistent identifier, to their Xbox gamertag. Ideally, users will be able to opt-out of this kind of personal data matching and won’t have to use their real names.
Cloud storage & always-on connectivity
Although you won’t need to be connected to the Internet to do some things on the new Xbox, many games will require connectivity to work. There’s also increased emphasis on cloud storage of game data, so say goodbye to traditional memory cards and hello to online storage, most likely integrated with Microsoft’s SkyDrive and maybe with other cloud storage services, like Dropbox. Users can store movies, music, game data, and more in the cloud; they can even store gameplay videos and edit them online.
The privacy implications: Once you store something online, it’s way easier for law enforcement and other third parties to access it. Unfortunately, the law is really far behind on protecting information that’s stored in the cloud because of a legal principle called the third-party doctrine. In non-legalese, it means that if you have a document, and you share it with company A (such as Xbox’s cloud storage), you lose privacy rights in it and law enforcement can get it without even a warrant. There’s tremendous pressure today on Congress to make it even easier for law enforcement to access stored information through proposed legislation like CALEA, which would force companies to build backdoors that would let the government in. Strong encryption of stored data could reduce privacy risks, so we’re hoping Microsoft provides it.
Every Xbox One will come pre-loaded with Skype, which Microsoft acquired in 2011.
The privacy implications: Microsoft has been quiet about privacy questions regarding Skype, even in the face of an open letter to them by more than 100 Internet activists, organizations, and companies (including us). Just this week, news broke that Microsoft appears to be monitoring Skype messages, meaning they can intercept text chats. That’s not very heartening for a communication tool that thousands of civil rights activists and journalists depend on, let alone millions of regular users.
Yusuf Mehdi, Corporate Vice President of Marketing, Strategy and Business at Microsoft, said that the One is “the beginning of truly intelligent TV.” In a world where your devices know who you are and are always connected to the web (the “Internet of things” that security experts like Bruce Schneier have written about), it’s harder to protect your privacy.
The Xbox One is launching later this year. The official launch date, along with a longer list of games that will debut at launch, will be unveiled at E3 in June.
Are you going to line up to get a One when it comes out? Are you worried about any of the privacy issues?