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Would you let your TV watch you?

Representative Michael Capuano

Representative Michael Capuano

US Representative Michael E. Capuano filed legislation Thursday that would allow consumers to block efforts by Verizon Communications Inc. and other video distributors to use new technologies to track the behavior of customers as they watch television.

Cable and technology companies such as Verizon are trying to develop monitoring systems that would be built into cable TV subscribers’ set-top boxes or digital video recorders and use cameras and microphones to keep tabs on the movements and comments of viewers — even to the point of detecting their moods.

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The companies would then select advertisements that would be most likely to appeal to those viewers.

Such living room surveillance systems are not yet in use, but Capuano said Congress should make sure consumer protections are in place before companies begin collecting such data.

“I think it’s important to begin this conversation before we get too far down the road,” said Capuano, a Somerville Democrat.

His bill, also sponsored by Representative Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, is called the We Are Watching You Act.

Capuano said television systems that record and analyze viewer behavior could pose a significant threat to privacy. His measure would allow consumers to opt out of monitoring altogether at any time. If a viewer opts in and allows monitoring, the company would have to clearly display “We are watching you” on the TV screen.

Companies would also have to tell consumers what information is being collected and how it would be used.

The proposal comes amid widespread outrage over reports that the National Security Agency routinely intercepts the telephone records of millions of Americans and taps into databases belonging to the largest Internet companies.

Technology analyst Roger Kay said that public anger at the NSA and Capuano’s proposal both reflect a growing fear that digital technologies have put the right to privacy under siege.

“Here we are again in this sort of Orwellian moment,” said Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland. “The human institutions haven’t had time to catch up with the technology.”

Capuano’s bill was inspired by reports that Verizon in 2011 unsuccessfully sought a patent for a monitoring system that would determine what kind of ads to broadcast to viewers based on their behavior while watching TV.

The system would detect sound, body movements, and activities such as eating and drinking and present commercials to those viewers accordingly. A viewer drinking a can of Budweiser, for example, may see an ad for the beer company, Verizon said in patent documents. The system would even detect moods, determining that someone humming or singing an upbeat tune was happy:

“Accordingly, one or more advertisements may be selected for presentation to the user that are configured to target happy people.”

Or the system could detect two people “cuddling on a couch” and deliver “a commercial for a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers, a commercial including a trailer for an upcoming romantic comedy movie, etc.”

Verizon on Thursday declined to comment. In a statement provided last year to the online publication Business Insider, Verizon said it “has a well-established track record of respecting its customers’ privacy and protecting their personal information” and added that “such futuristic patent filings by innovators are routine.”

The Verizon patent request was recently rejected by the Patent and Trade Office.

Capuano said his first reaction to the Verizon plan was disbelief. “This has to be a joke or some kind of science fiction thing,” he said. But he has since learned that not only Verizon but other companies are working on a similar system.

Microsoft Corp., which builds video cameras and microphones into its Kinect video gaming devices, filed a patent application in 2011 for a system that would track TV viewer activity. Microsoft’s system would reward users who stayed put during commercials, instead of going to the bathroom, for example.

On Thursday, Microsoft referred to a posting on a corporate blog in which it states the Kinect system does not spy on users, and moreover gives them total control over sharing data.

Brian Blau, a research director in consumer technologies at Gartner Inc., said Capuano’s bill might make sense if applied to large living room TV sets.

But nowadays, many people watch TV on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. They, too, have cameras and microphones that could be used to record viewer behavior, but their small screens could be obstructed by a constant warning.

Blau said the bill “doesn’t take into account all the different ways we can be recognized and all the different ways we can be advertised to.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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