Is There A Privacy Issue In Cable Companies' Plan To Track Viewing Habits?

from the depends-on-how-you-look-at-it dept

Ryan Radia takes a look at the news that cable TV providers are teaming up to track viewing habits and questions whether or not there's a real privacy issue there. He comes to the conclusion that there isn't one for a few reasons. First, he notes that the data is anonymized and aggregated. That's true, but not very convincing. We've seen over and over again that there's no such thing as an anonymized dataset. There's almost always something in the data that can reveal at least some of the participants. Perhaps that's more difficult with things TV watching habits -- but not impossible. Next, he points out that the legal and PR impact of any real privacy violation would be pretty damaging on these companies. Finally, he suggests that the benefits of the tracking outweigh any negatives -- which, again is not very convincing. Just because a company can better target ads to you doesn't seem like an excuse to give up your privacy. That said, I do tend to agree that this isn't much of a privacy violation at all, but if the cable companies were smart, they should at least be extremely upfront about how the process works, and let people voluntarily "opt-in" to it, rather than being forced to join. Hell, they can offer incentives to do so. It's worked for AC Nielsen for years.


Reader Comments (rss)

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 11:26pm

    No more tampon ads?

    I'd give up all privacy about my TV watching if it meant I wouldn't have to see another tampon ad, anything about "feminine itching", or some old walrus man telling me about diabetic supplies.

     

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      Rick, Jan 15th, 2009 @ 11:47pm

      Re: No more tampon ads?

      Try DISH Network. I haven't seen one since I switched and I always assumed it was because their boxes report viewing habits. DISH actually charges you $5 per box per month if you don't hook it to a phone line or Ethernet connection.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 4:21am

        Re: Re: No more tampon ads?

        DISH actually charges you $5 per box per month if you don't hook it to a phone line or Ethernet connection.

        Actually this is why I don't have DISH network. I had wanted to cancel cable for years, but the per box fee always made their prices far too high.

        Ultimately, cable and satellite lost out to broadcast and high quality internet streams. I save $50 a month after a Netflix subscription (and I use sites like Hulu as a DVR). I enjoy TV more for less money.

        Now they want to track behavior to target ads, but your bill won't be reduced. If even one major cable company offers an opt-in with incentives, rather than forcing it on every subscriber they can, I'll start to wonder Time Warner is so bad.

         

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        hegemon13, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 6:45am

        Re: Re: No more tampon ads?

        That is not for advertising. Satellites are a one-way communication, so the phone line is how they receive billing information from your box, such as pay-per-view fees. It is also how your box receives the current encryption codes, which generally change on a weekly basis. The reason they charge you, is that it is pretty easy to bypass the encryption by modifying your box. Often, it is just requires a firmware update or access to the service menu. Then, you just have to manually enter the codes, which can be found online. They bill you assuming that you are stealing content. Of course, this does not exempt you from a lawsuit if they catch you.

         

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        hegemon13, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 6:46am

        Re: Re: No more tampon ads?

        That is not for advertising. Satellites are a one-way communication, so the phone line is how they receive billing information from your box, such as pay-per-view fees. It is also how your box receives the current encryption codes, which generally change on a weekly basis. The reason they charge you is that it is pretty easy to bypass the encryption by modifying your box. Often, it is just requires a firmware update or access to the service menu. Then, you just have to manually enter the codes, which can be found online. They bill you assuming that you are stealing content. Of course, this does not exempt you from a lawsuit if they catch you.

         

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    Killer_Tofu (profile), Jan 16th, 2009 @ 5:34am

    Haha

    Since everybody knows only one person in any given house ever watches TV. [/sarcasm]

     

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    hegemon13, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 6:39am

    No benefit to customers

    "Finally, he suggests that the benefits of the tracking outweigh any negatives..."

    Benefit to who? I think what he really means is that they will make more money in advertising than they would lose in lawsuits over the practice.

    Also, none of his reasoning addresses the actual privacy issue. The AOL search records were anonymous, but that didn't stop people from tying them back to individuals. The PR hit and/or benefits to the carrier have nothing at all to do with privacy, and they certainly don't provide a justification for why it is okay.

     

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    OKVol (profile), Jan 16th, 2009 @ 7:03am

    The idea of an additional box to get your TV fix is absurd

    TV/radio concept was great. Broadcast (in the technical sense) you signal out, and hope someone listens. Nielsen made a ton of money finding out if someone listens.

    Then the VCR came along. If it wasn't for the testimony of Mr. Rogers before congress, the movie/TV industry would have killed that concept. But, the VCR screwed the Nielsen ratings - they could not shift concepts to allow for time delay. (And they still can't.)

    Cable, back in the early 70's, was broadcast on coax. Hook it to your TV, and watch what you want. Then cable offered more than 13 channels, and changed the frequencies to use what you couldn't broadcast, and offered a box. TVs shifted to cable/broadcast, but still those darned boxes still hung around.

    Cable and satellite companies want a box they control to provide limits, and get you the pay more to remove those limits. It's easier than removing the frequency filters back in the pre-box cable days.

    Digital cable provided even finer control. The prime driver of digital cable is the transport of the non-local channels is encrypted. Cafeteria plans? They could do it, but they don't have the procedures and staff to handle the implementation. That is what drives up the cost.

    And, by the way, the MPAA wants to limit your DVR from recording movies that are making them money. At least that is getting shot down.

    But, the cable head-end already has the capability of knowing what you watch, what you record (DVR), and when you watch what you record. Satellite, if you connect the ethernet or phone line, can too.

    Cable and satellite companies are looking for more profit, and they are close to used car salespersons for reputation.

    It's a dirty business. I just want an Internet pipe of at least 5Meg download, and be able to find all my programming on the Internet. If I have to use the TOR onion router to make myself anonymous, I will.

    My qualifications for this rant? I used to work at TV listings company, and got hands-on with their cable head-end demo lab. Yes, they develop the software for some cable boxes, and I heard this concept discussed 5 years ago.

     

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    JB, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 9:37am

    Odd Viewing Habits

    We leave the Cable box on when we turn off the TV.

    Their analysis of our viewing habits will show that we watch the same channel for countless hours at a time.

     

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      Robert A. Rosenberg, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 12:27pm

      Re: Odd Viewing Habits

      That is assuming that the STB can not detect if the TV is turned on or not. I am not sure but it seems that this may be possible (measure the resistance on the Video Out feed?) so the STB MAY be able to tell if you are viewing or not. This, of course, does not apply to a DVR since if it is playing a recording, it is a good assumption that the TV is on and being viewed (unless you are feeding a VCR or DVD burner in lieu of a TV Set).

       

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    rubberman, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 11:42am

    Not my habits if you please!

    I look at my browsing of the internet much like I look at my browsing in the local library - it is NO ONE'S BUSINESS BUT MY OWN! To my mind, this is the most egregious violation of my privacy possible! If I find that my ISP is doing this, I will cancel my contract with them and find another ISP that will promise not to track my activities. If I cannot find one, then I will start to use encrypted connections via TOR or some similar service. I am purchasing bandwidth in a pipe, not an agent for a bunch of marketing types or proxy for government violators of my right to privacy.

    FWIW, I think it is time we, the public, took back the Internet and force our representatives to regulate the industry in favor of the user, NOT the producer and service provider, as we are in the final analysis the rationale for the existence of the internet at all.

     

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    gene_cavanaugh, Jan 16th, 2009 @ 7:31pm

    Privacy with data collection

    I tend to believe that in the short term, there is not much of an issue. However, without transparency, incremental "improvements" ALWAYS follow, and eventually privacy will be completely gone.
    From there, again, without transparency, the government will eventually start digging into the accumulated data (for our own good, of course) and we will be on the slippery slope to a totalitarian state.

     

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