Worried About Privacy? Don't Fear the Xbox. Fear Government Surveillance.


credit: Of Corgis & Cocktails / Foter.com / CC BY

Should privacy-conscious gamers be worried about Microsoft's new video game console, the Xbox One? As MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin reports, gamers are concerned that the voice and motion sensors on the newly announced game system, which is set to go on sale in November, could be abused in light of recent reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) has collected user data from a host of tech giants, including Microsoft.

The new Xbox features an upgraded version of the Kinect, a fairly advanced sensor system that, in addition to listening for voice commands, also senses body motion, recognizes faces, and can even detect changes in a player's heart rate. As Ed Krayewski noted last month, worried gamers fear that some or all of this data could be targeted for collection and analysis by government surveillance authorities. 

A bit of caution here does not seem entirely unreasonable to me, especially considering that, according to a leaked PowerPoint slide, Microsoft was the very first company to participate in the NSA's tech-industry data sharing program, PRISM.

But I don't think anything about the Xbox One is especially worrying. For one thing, Microsoft seems to be taking steps to attempt to address privacy concerns. In privacy control guidelines released earlier this week, the company said that Xbox One owners will have control of what the Kinect can see and hear, including the ability to turn the Kinect sensors off. Nor, the company says, will any personal data leave the console without the player's "explicit permission." Federal surveillance authorities can't easily mass-collect large amounts of user data if it doesn't leave individual systems.

More generally, I'm not convinced there's any reason to single out the Xbox One relative to a lot of other devices. Most smart phones and tablets come equipped with cameras and microphones already, as do many laptop computers. And unlike the Xbox One, which is likely to stay planted in your living room most of the time, those devices are portable—which means that they also potentially enable location tracking. Those devices are also more likely to be used for sensitive personal and business communications—with colleagues, for example, or banks—than a gaming and media hub like the Xbox One.

Lastly, and most importantly, I think it's a mistake to focus on the technology rather than on the snooping. If you're worried about government surveillance—and you should be—then the problem is government surveillance, and the many laws and legislators who enable it. Most people understand this intuitively with mobile phones. The problem with the FISA order giving the NSA permission to collect call data on Verizon customers isn't the existence of phones, mobile networks, or voice communications technology. It's that the government is secretly collecting all of that data. Very few people really think that the best response has anything to do with, say, getting rid of phones or eliminating useful phone-based features.

This is broadly how we ought to think about new products like the Xbox One. To some extent communications technology is always going to present opportunities for worrisome government snooping. In the old days it was mail and credit cards and landlines; now it's smart phones and Xboxes. But the right reaction isn't to fret about whatever nifty new consumer product hits the market. It's to look for ways to block, expose, or otherwise push back against government efforts to utilize those products to track our activities in an inappropriate manner. The problem, in other words, isn't the technology; it's the surveillance. 

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  1. People who play the video games are violent by nature and probably anti-government too so they should be tracked in their homes.

  2. Wait, wait, wait….how the fuck am I supposed to fulfill my dream of being the Last Starfighter if my video game skills aren’t surveilled by the Rylan Star Empire?

    1. Maybe if you can get the high score, the government will recruit you to pilot their flying deathbots over Syria.

    2. Remember, Death Blossom delivers only one massive volley at close range…theoretically.

      1. You realize he was just grooming that kid for spacebuggery right?

        1. That’s what makes it so hot!

      2. Theoretically we should already be dead!

  3. Going by the reactions to XBox One, I don’t know if there will even be that many people who could be surveilled because they bought one.

    1. I think this is wrong. The negative reactions so far have mainly been from (relatively) hardcore gamers. They are a picky bunch. But they’re not the core audience that Microsoft is aiming for with the XO. The One is really designed as a living-room media hub for just about everyone, including casual gamers and non-gamers. And ultimately that’s where the bulk of their sales will be.

      Think about this: Microsoft is looking to sell 100 million plus Xbox One consoles over the life of the system. Core gamers will of course be an important part of the market, because they buy lots of games. But in the end, they will still only be a small portion of Xbox owners.

      Also, I suspect that core gamers will eventually come around. Because Xbox will have Halo 12, and a handful of other must-have exclusives. And core gamers tend to be complainy, but I just can’t see them widely opting out of a major part of the next console generation.

      1. Mmm hmm….OK. Go on…

      2. Maybe, Suder-Man. I know the reactions from everyone I’ve seen regarding check-ins with Microsoft and no used games and all the rest have been extremely negative. That’s all I’ve seen. And a bunch of people have seen what Sony is touting with the PS4 and have geen gravitating towards that. Competition is a bitch.

        I hate consoles so it really doesn’t effect me in any case.

      3. I don’t know if I agree with this. In the past, the “living room media hub” has amounted to little more than a way for giant corporations to flush obscene amounts of cash down the toilet.

        The problem is that you can only do one thing with it at once. If the kids want to play games that means that no one else can use the teevee, and if everyone else wants to watch a movie the kids can’t play games. The fact that you can watch teevee on your teevee (which, by their demonstration, seems to be M-soft’s featured feature) isn’t that great of a selling point.

      4. The One is really designed as a living-room media hub for just about everyone, including casual gamers and non-gamers.

        *Blows raspberry* Yeah it’s designed to be a wireless cable box with apps I have ON MY PHONE. Way to dominate 2002 MS. You may be right Suderman that ‘typical’ people will be the bulk of sales. What’s the bulk of almost nothing?

        ecause Xbox will have Halo 12, and a handful of other must-have exclusives.

        The only ‘must-haves’ XBone is looking to get are really long in the tooth franchises. MS is putting all its eggs in some old rickety baskets. The 360 was developer friendly now MS doesn’t care at all about the tail-end of the curve. I love Halo and I am not going to buy an Xbox 1 for Halo. This will be a disaster.

        1. You may be right Suderman that ‘typical’ people will be the bulk of sales. What’s the bulk of almost nothing?

          Depends. Nintendo made a ton of money with “typical” people with the Wii, and of course is sucking methane with the Wii U.

          1. Ah yes, the Wii. The base of Nintendo’s supposed domination of the last gen was sales of the Wii to the masses who never usually played video games. Most of whom played some vidya and then…lost interest. They weren’t games before and weren’t after.

            1. OTOH, both the gf’s mother and mine offered us their Wii. My mom went first, so now we have a Wii and an XB360. And I’m done console gaming.

          2. It made a ton of money one time, because they bought the wii and never bought another game again because all they wanted is the bowling. You can’t really sustain a company on one time sales.

            The 80/20 rule applies to almost every business: 20% of your customers will be responsible for 80% of your business. They’re the ones you need to worry about keeping happy.

      5. Given the recent developments of Microshit wanting to own your life via console and Sony wielding the DMCA like a sledgehammer on anyone who dares modify property that was bought and paid for, I’m ready to dispense with console gaming altogether.

      6. But they’re not the core audience that Microsoft is aiming for with the XO.

        They are, however, responsible for 80 percent of the spending in the video game market, so to the extent that they aren’t the audience that Microsoft is aiming for, it’s yet more demonstration of how Microsoft’s clueless management is slowly killing the company.

      7. It’s not just the surveillance. You have to have an XBOX Gold account to just use Netflix (Which your already paying for), or any online features. It want’s to replace your cable box…unless you have Directv or AT&T etc. It makes you check in every 24 hours or the system is useless. These are just some issues.

        Microsoft’s response – oh well get a 360 than.

  4. There’s an implicit contract between you and the Ryan Star Empire when you drop that first quarter into the game.

    1. At least their version of the G.I. Bill is better. My studies at the Vulcan Science Academy were paid in full.

      1. You went to VSA? Ha, I went to the Borg Institute of Technology. You dopes aren’t even in the Assimilation League. Get back to me when you go to a real school.

        1. BorgIT? That fucking diploma mill? Univ VGer is more intellectually rigorous – AND has a better football team.

          1. At least none of us were so stupid that we had to go to Starfleet Academy, amirite? Look at the dopes who they churn through that place. Didn’t ProL go to Starfleet? What an idiot!

            1. Where they taught him to put starships underwater?

            2. You fucking educational elitists make me sick. My degree from Arcturus A&M is just as good as yours, you fucking prick.

              1. A planet school? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

                Go crawl back under your rock, you provincial hayseed.

            3. I heard ProL predates Starfleet.

              1. I heard that he originally went to Brown.


                1. Shaddup you whingers. When your school can beat my alum, the Klingon Military Havoc, in football, then we can talk who has the better school.

                  1. 21 Kickflip on 2!

            4. Borg IT? HAHA!

              It’s ONE fucking class: Assimilation 101.

          1. TOGA! TOGA! TOGA! TOGA!

        2. Next we’ll hear from all the fooking Hogwarts Alums.

          1. I doubt it; they still haven’t figured out that wacky muggle internet yet.

    2. So it’s kind of like that “social contract” I implicitly signed when I was born.

      1. The quarter doubles as your signature.

  5. I concern myself with the technology AND the snooping. I turned off the feature on my phone that tracks my eyes – gave me the creeps.

  6. So as a non-gamer, with no smart phone, I have nothing to fear.

    They came for the gamers, and I said nothing, because gamers are gay as fuck….they came for the smart phoners, and I said nothing, because I think smartphones are a waste of money….and GET OFF MY LAWN!!!

    *shakes cane in vaguely in the direction of something*

    1. I was once like you, thinking smartphones were useless, but now I know how wonderful they are.
      Join us, Almanian!

      Seriously, I didn’t want one but I’ve had mine for a couple years now and am glad I got it.

    2. This is why smartphones are useful:


  7. CBS confirms that someone hacked into Sharyl Atkinson’s computer.

    “A cyber security firm hired by CBS News has determined through forensic analysis that Sharyl Attkisson’s computer was accessed by an unauthorized, external, unknown party on multiple occasions late in 2012. Evidence suggests this party performed all access remotely using Attkisson’s accounts. While no malicious code was found, forensic analysis revealed an intruder had executed commands that appeared to involve search and exfiltration of data.

    So one of the few journalists critical of the administration had her computer compromised. I’m not saying that this is someone in the administration, but it’s a little bizarre that this happened right around the time that the administration was going after AP and Rosen. At the very least it gives cause for a little bit of paranoia.

  8. Everybody is waiting for the sexbot, but one imagines those things will be hooked up to NSA also, this is the best argument for changing the laws now.

  9. There’s a big difference between “all my pieces of data are known by different people, but not by the same people,” and “all my data is being collected and sifted through by the same people.” That’s why the third party doctrine is ridiculous.

    (Even aside from the issue that I care a lot more about the people that have the power of the state.)

    Schumpeter mentioned that “when the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation” in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.

  10. Most smart phones and tablets come equipped with cameras and microphones already, as do many laptop computers

    Every smart phone has a microphone. Otherwise it’s not much of a phone.

    I’m unaware of a single smart phone without a camera, and every tablet anyone actually buys has one.

    Likewise laptops; I’m not sure you can buy any laptops without both microphone and camera today.

    So not “most” and “many”, but “all” and “almost-or-all”.

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