Civil Liberties

Xbox One Kinect Stirring Privacy Worries About Microsoft

The newest Xbox can see you in the dark


not quite so realistic yet

It's been eight years since the start of the roll out of seventh generation video games consoles with the release of Microsoft's Xbox 360. Back in 2005, the biggest (non-graphic) technological advances in the games were things like wireless controllers, the ability to play and even shop online, and an early version of motion detection. This time around, Microsoft's motion-detection device, the Xbox One's Kinect, is raising new privacy concerns. Gamerant explains:

"Xbox On." With those two words, Microsoft's Yusuf Mehdi seemingly changed gamers' perception of motion control cameras, and how they can interact with them.

Up until that point, the Kinect had been almost like an opt-in service, where the player needed to turn on their console before the device did its little head nod and then sprung into action. The Xbox One's version of Kinect, however, appeared to be a bit more "aware" – springing to life even while the console was seemingly powered down. It was almost as if the Kinect was watching and waiting until it was called upon.

This singular feature instantly called into question the idea of privacy, something that has plagued the Kinect for quite some time. If such a device could stay active even while the console was offline, what else was it doing?

The Kinect's ability to collect and store data about its surrounding has led the privacy commissioner in Germany to express concerns about it being a "monitoring device." Microsoft, for its part, insists it respects users' privacy. Via Kotaku:

Microsoft is now seeking to calm concerns that the new Kinect might spy. "We are designing the new Kinect with simple, easy methods to customize privacy settings, provide clear notifications and meaningful privacy choices for how data will be used, stored and shared," the Microsoft rep told me.

"We know our customers want and expect strong privacy protections to be built into our products, devices and services, and for companies to be responsible stewards of their data. Microsoft has more than ten years of experience making privacy a top priority. Kinect for Xbox 360 was designed and built with strong privacy protections in place and the new Kinect will continue this commitment. We'll share more details later."

Kotaku also explains the difference between this iteration of the Kinect and Microsoft's last one:

The Xbox 360's Kinect was easy to baffle or block. Players had a leg up on it and could easily maintain their privacy. The sensor didn't have to be plugged in for the console to work. When it was plugged in, it didn't have to face the player. Most games didn't even require it. Xbox 360 users could leave the Kinect unplugged or even block the device's visual sensors if they just wanted to use its microphone for voice commands.

The new Kinect seems like it will be trickier to foil technologically, making Microsoft's promised privacy settings all the more relevant and essential. The new Kinect's vastly-improved sensors can identify its users in the dark and even track which controller they hold in their hands. The new sensor can tell when a user smiles or turns away from the TV and can react. It's unclear if the new Kinect must see a player in its view during their play session or if it can handle being obscured. This is partially a policy decision by Microsoft, which will get to decide whether to require persistent Kinect-based facial recognition to log a player in or, a la Xbox 360, will settle for button prompts.

Gameranx brings up accusations of Microsoft making Skype easier for law enforcement to use for snooping as a potential cautionary tale for the Xbox One. Microsoft reported how often it shares data from services like Skype, Xbox and even Office, with law enforcement for the first time in the company's history just earlier this year.