Why Xbox One's Kinect Won't be Hal 2.0

By Gary Cutlack on at

Look, it's OK to be a bit paranoid about technology. If you do something bad the police can indeed pull your entire internet history from the cloud and beat you with it, but sometimes you've just got to go with the flow and accept that things are going to be different in the future. Learning to live with Kinect, and all the other ways we're being "watched," is one of those times.

The world's gone a bit mad in the wake of the surveillance scandals. Phone cameras are now accused of coming alive at night and sending Snapchat images of our sleeping faces to the government; any time GPS is mentioned the paranoid elements start hyperventilating through their teeth in fear of being tracked, plus everyone's minding their language on the phone in case MP3s of the conversation end up on the internet as a list feature under the headline '15 Biggest Lies Gary Told His Dad on the Phone Last Month'.

The privacy issues surrounding Xbox One's updated Kinect camera are a superb example of how the surveillance non-issue has been blown up into a big thing by those who ought to understand how technology works a little better. Yes, Kinect is a webcam in your house, and yes it listens to what you're saying, but it's more like an obedient dog waiting for you to say "Walkies!" or "Din-dins!" than a government-spying tool built to capture images of you vacantly staring at X Factor with a phone on one thigh and a tablet on the other. Who wants to see that, anyway?

It's listening because, if you want, you can tell Kinect to do things for you. It's listening because it can identify your friend from his voice and automatically sign him in to his Xbox Live account when he comes over for some rare real-world multiplayer action, so the beatings you're about to administer to him become "canon" and are recorded under his profile for posterity.

It's important to remember that listening is a different thing from recording and transmitting when being unreasonably paranoid about stuff on the internet. If you turn Kinect and the Xbox One off, the only thing it does is sit there, listening for one key phrase -- "Xbox On." Say that and it'll switch everything on. Talk about your boring life and job and shopping requirements and, like most other people in the room, it won't take any of it in.

Microsoft promises that "data will not leave your Xbox One without your explicit permission," so all the jokes about it scanning your household and reporting back to the US government are just that. Jokes. Bad ones. In fact, all of Kinect's features can be individually turned on and off and, if you really mistrust all new things, it can be completely unplugged -- the latter an option introduced by Microsoft in the wake of the "always-on" controversy that plagued Xbox One's initial reveal.

Your privacy is more likely to be invaded by the postman looking through your window to see if you're in to sign for a package than it is by a dumb bit of plastic. The governments of the world can do many things, but they can't reach a finger into your lounge and turn something on if you've turned it off at the plug. That sort of feature won't become live until Building Regulations 5.0 are passed in to law some time after 2017.

 

See No Evil

If you're worried about Facebook selling your details to advertisers, you've almost certainly not got enough proper things in your life to worry about. So what if the ads around the side are based on words you may have typed and pages you've previously looked at? Isn't there a small chance that might be interesting? Or are you more embarrassed about the "privacy implications" because it might reveal you've been talking to someone about whether baldness cures actually work, hence the Regaine(TM) animated banners all over your computer?

There are also laws in place. The EU's endlessly banging on about data protection and requiring major corporations to tone down their ambitions when it comes to learning everything about us and using it for their own ends. In fact, Microsoft's said it's finding dealing with the privacy situation limiting in terms of what it can and can't offer. For example, it could, technically, upload an image of your face to its server, then use that to recognise you at a friend's house.

But because that would involve personal data leaving the security of your own console and being uploaded to a central server, that's not allowed. Facial data stays on your own machine. Microsoft is being very careful in ensuring it doesn't get caught up in any privacy invasion storms, because it's been through enough storms of late and has run out of dry trousers to change into.

So yes, be paranoid if you like. Disconnect cameras and put them in drawers when you're walking around the house checking that everything's locked and switched off for the fifth time before bed if you must. Whisper in the lounge so it can't hear you. Wear a fake moustache and comb your hair differently every morning to stop Kinect recognising you. Talk with an Australian accent on Wednesdays. Take different routes to work or school or the jobcentre each day to keep the GPS systems confused and put THEM off the track when THEY come after you. Just remember that in avoiding the finely-tuned eyes and ears of today's aware gadgetry, you're also avoiding progress.

In some alternative universe, people are amazed that you can turn on a piece of hardware by talking to it, and that it can be controlled by waving your arms about, and can be made to control your TV, and can recognise your friends, and is even sensitive enough to measure your heart beat and pick out individual fingers on your hand. But here, we're surrounded by people trying to find reasons why those might be bad things.