Comcast: The DVRs Will Have Eyes?

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Is Comcast planning to put videocameras in its DVRs so it can spy on its customers?

Well, no. But a blogger from NewTeeVee suggested as much after his offhand chat with Comcast SVP Gerard Kunkel, setting off a ripple of near-incredulous coverage from other media (see these pickups by DSLReports, NY Times and PCWorld).

The idea, it seems, is that Comcast is experimenting with a camera-enabled set-top, which would recognize the "body forms" of people sitting in front of the TV (according to the NewTeeVee blogger). That would let the Comcast DVR pull up your favorite channels, prerecorded programs and preferences, and serve up targeted ads based on user profiles.

Neat? Not to the NewTeeVee guy. His paranoid take: "I can’t trust Comcast with BitTorrent, so why should I trust them with my must-be-kept-secret, DVR-clogging addiction to Keeping Up with the Kardashians?"

Kunkel later wrote to NewTeeVee in an attempt to correct the implication that Comcast would be doing anything other than displaying someone’s favorites when they sit down in front of the TV: "I want to be clear that in no way are we exploring any camera devices that would monitor customer behavior."

Couple of points worth noting here.

1. It’s not even a new idea. Dave Zatz of Zatz Not Funny! pointed out that TiVo applied for a patent in 2005 on a system that would let remote controls identify individuals via RFID chips, which would be associated with a person’s profile/preferences. That way, your shows would pop up when your RFID tag informed the TiVo of your presence.

Microsoft goes further with an application for a patent in July 2007 for a camera-based system that would ID the viewer and serve up targeted ads based on an anonymized profile. 

2. Service providers already have reams of data about you. I don’t want to set anyone off in a hysterical fit of panic, forcing them to flee to a dark cave wearing a tin-foil hat. But here is the spooky realityThey already can tell when you watch the Kardashians!

And here is the mundane reality: They don’t care, per se. Except to aggregate that viewing behavior for those who buy and sell ads, the mechanism that fuels most of the TV industry. The eventual goal is to serve up ads targeted to individuals (e.g., Microsoft’s idea in previous point), through developments like Project Canoe. Shhhh: don’t let NewTeeVee know about this.

3. Anything that hints of personal data collection gets some people very, very worried. Comcast gets zinged all the time in the consumer press/blogosphere for having lame user interfaces, poor customer service, etc., etc. Kunkel attempted to describe what to me sounds like a pretty cool feature as a TV viewer — and Comcast gets instantly hammered over imagined privacy concerns. 

Sure, the idea of the TV "knowing" who you are probably sounds a little spooky. But remember how weird it was when caller ID first came out, and the person you were calling answered the phone already knowing it was you? I’m starting to understand why product-development folks keep ideas on the drawing board away from feverish public speculation.