Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) are filing the "We Are Watching You Act" in response to reports that national telecommunications companies are exploring technology for digital video recorders (DVRs) that would record the personal activities of consumers as they watch television from the privacy of their own homes. Current law is silent on these devices and this legislation would require both an opt-in for consumers and an on-screen warning whenever the device is recording information about consumers.
"This may sound preposterous but it is neither a joke nor an exaggeration. These DVRs would essentially observe consumers as they watch television as a way to super-target ads. It is an incredible invasion of privacy. Given what we have recently learned about the access that the government has to the phone numbers we call, the emails we send and the websites we visit, it is important for consumers to decide for themselves whether they want this technology. Think about what you do in the privacy of your own home and then think about how you would feel sharing that information with your cable company, their advertisers and your government," stated Congressman Capuano.
"Allowing this type of technology to be installed in the homes of individuals without their consent would be an egregious invasion of privacy," said Congressman Jones. "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 Americans' rights."
Devices would utilize technology such as infrared cameras and microphones embedded in DVRs and cable boxes. A patent application filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office by Verizon notes the technology could detect a range of viewer activities. According to the patent application, the set-top device will be able to distinguish "ambient action of eating, exercising, laughing, reading, sleeping, talking, humming, cleaning" and more.
The application further notes that ambient action also "comprises an interaction between the user and another user" which are described as "at least one of cuddling, fighting, participating in a game or sporting event, and talking". That information would then be used to deliver targeted ads to your living room. Other companies, such as Intel and Comcast have explored similar technology.
Although this DVR technology is in its conceptual stages, it is important that Congress establish clear boundaries before it becomes reality. Right now, there is nothing preventing companies from utilizing the technology, no obligation to notify the consumer before it is used and no obligation to give consumers the chance to opt out. Too often, Congress is far behind when it comes to advancements in technology and is forced to update regulations that are decades old so that they are meaningful for today's innovations. The "We Are Watching You Act" does not prohibit companies from developing this technology. It simply lets consumers make their own decisions about whether or not it belongs in their homes.
If someone is watching a favorite program while cleaning the kitchen, ads for products that will make appliances shine may show up. If a couple is talking about where to dine over the weekend, or enjoying a crunchy snack while watching the Stanley Cup finals, their television may serve up food suggestions. The patent application even goes so far as to suggest that if a couple is fighting, an advertisement associated with relationship counseling might be selected for them.
The "We Are Watching You Act" requires prior consent from the consumer before this type of DVR can be installed in a home. The operator of the technology must provide specific details on how collected information will be used, and who will have access to the data. When the recording device is in use, the words WE ARE WATCHING YOU would appear, large enough to be readable from a distance, for as long as the device is recording the viewing area. If consumers opt out of the new technology, companies are required to offer a video service that does not collect this information but is otherwise identical in all respects.