Can You Watch Us Now?

As concerns over National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping linger like the hazy, humid days of summer, U.S. Rep Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) recently introduced a new bill called the We Are Watching You Act that would protect consumers against having cameras and microphones monitoring them from cable boxes and other devices without their knowledge while they are watching television.

The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep Walter Jones (R-N.C.), comes in response to reports that Verizon is seeking to patent digital video recording (DVR) technology that would record what people are doing in their homes while they watch television.

At press time, the bill had not yet been put to a vote.

“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,” said Capuano. “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.”

“Allowing this type of technology to be installed in the homes of individuals without their consent would be an egregious invasion of privacy,” added Jones.

The patent application for “Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a User” was filed by Verizon back in May, 2011, and made public by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office late last fall.

According to Verizon’s request, DVRs will be able to distinguish various “ambient actions” such as exercising, eating, reading, laughing, talking, humming, cleaning, cuddling and fighting, and then present the watcher(s) with the appropriately matching advertisements.

“Verizon’s set-top box,” the website TechHive reports, “would even parse words from your conversations and detect moods to better market to you; the patent application describes sensing a viewer’s stress and advertising aromatherapy candles or a resort.”

While similar “ideas for monitoring technology implementation” have been pursued by other companies such as Comcast and Google, notes TechHive, they have yet to enter the marketplace.

Nevertheless, Capuano is urging Congress to be proactive in passing legislation pertaining to this technology.

“Too often,” says the Congressman, “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.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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