One of the new features in Microsoft’s next Xbox is an advanced Kinect sensor, an accessory with built in cameras for motion control and video chats.
But the device is also raising some privacy concerns from people who fear the Kinect will be able to peer into your living room without you knowing. Government officials in Germany and Australia have already raised concerns over the new Kinect, which comes included with each new Xbox One console.
Peter Schaar, Germany’s federal commissioner for data protection, is worried that the Kinect’s always-on design will lead to breaches in privacy, according to Spiegel:
The Xbox continuously records all sorts of personal information about me. Reaction rates, my learning or emotional states. The are then processed on an external server, and possibly even passed on to third parties. Whether they will ever deleted, the person can not influence.
In Australia, the Kinect’s always-on nature may lead to unexpected regulation. Tim Vines, a director at Civil Liberties Australia, warned that the new Kinect could be considered a surveillance device under Australian law. Here’s what he told Australian gaming site GamesFix:
Microsoft’s new Xbox meets the definition of a surveillance device under some Australian laws, so they need to be up front and tell customers whether anyone else can intercept their information or remotely access their device.
According to Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison, these concerns are overblown. While the Kinect does in fact listen for voice commands while the system itself is powered down, this feature is limited to voice commands to turn on the Xbox. For example, it’ll only recognise commands like “Xbox, on.” Here’s what Harrison told Eurogamer in an interview:
Microsoft has very, very good policies around privacy. We’re a leader in the world of privacy, I think you’ll find. We take it very seriously. We aren’t using Kinect to snoop on anybody at all. We listen for the word “Xbox on” and then switch on the machine, but we don’t transmit personal data in any way, shape or form that could be personally identifiable to you, unless you explicitly opt into that.
While Harrison failed to elaborate on what kinds of things Xbox One owners could opt-in to, we can look at some of Microsoft’s recent patent applications to see what the Redmond-based tech giant might have up its sleeve.
One direction the company may take is to offer “achievements” for watching television on the console, as indicated by a patent application from 2011. This feature would be similar to how gamers can earn Achievement Points by accomplishing certain feats in Xbox 360 games today.
A less popular path would be to use Kinect to monitor how many people are sitting in front of the Kinect at a time in order to change the price of video content purchased. According to a patent application from 2012, Microsoft has considered giving copyright holders the power to charge users more for showing content to a larger audience.
We don’t yet know what direction Microsoft will take with this updated Kinect. What we do know is that gamers are concerned for their privacy. The word “creepy” has been thrown around quite a bit and there are comparisons to George Orwell’s “1984” on Twitter.