Friday, May 24, 2013

Kinectophobia: Xbox One and the End of Privacy

In the wake of Microsoft's disastrous reveal of the Xbox One, there are certainly a lot of things to hate. Not only did they leave out backwards compatibility, they seem bizarrely proud of that fact. The console requires an Internet connection in spite of how much a required online component has kneecapped the launch of several recent games. They appear to be leaving indie developers out in the cold. You don't need me to tell you that the Xbox One looks really dumb and that Microsoft has an uphill battle ahead of them.

But there's one complaint that keeps popping up from both commenters and industry writers that I find a bit... extreme. Or at the very least a bit reactionary.

Specifically, a lot of people are overreacting a little about how the new Kinect is apparently a required component in the Xbox One. It comes with it, it's always on, and the system doesn't function without it.

Now, I actually agree with this criticism for the most part. Requiring Kinect does seem a bit excessive and daunting. The Kinect can be a pain in the ass to set up. If you're just bringing your console over to a friend's house for a party or something, being required to also set up the Kinect might be enough of a reason to leave the behemoth at home. Also, as a Kinect owner myself, I'm curious if the new Kinect has gotten better at detecting people who are sitting down or people of varying body types and shapes. Will people without four limbs be able to use Kinect? The biggest barrier for the Kinect in my opinion is how it seems to work best in very limiting situations: In big, spacious rooms, looking at averagely-proportioned humans standing upright and in full view. So I'm less interested in what new tricks the Kinect can do and more interested in whether or not it can do those tricks under most reasonable circumstances.

But questionable functionality and cumbersome implementation aren't really the reasons why some people appear to be upset about the Kinect requirement. No, some people are merely upset that the Kinect is always on, even if the Xbox One is off, so that it can wake the Xbox One with your verbal commands.

On top of that, the Kinect doesn't just see you with standard IR and RGB cameras anymore. No, it is way more sophisticated now:

People seem to see the always-on Kinect as some kind of Orwellian nightmare.

If you have concerns about Microsoft installing an always-on microphone and camera in your living room, better invest in a veil for the camera and some way of muffling Kinect's "ears." Owners of the next-gen console will need to accept Kinect is watching thee and there's little privacy. [Alexander Sliwinski (Joystiq)]
I’m not sure I like the idea of a piece of hardware that’s hooked up in my living room listening to me on an ongoing basis. [Ben Kuchera (PAR)]

And these are both actual journalists who I imagine use an above-average amount of technology in their daily lives. These aren't tin-foil-hat-wearing octogenarians who think that iPhones cause cancer.

Look, I don't have to explain why this particular complaint is more than a little bit paranoid. If the Xbox One is off, it likely won't be able to communicate over the network, so it's not like there will be a direct feed that would be accessible from the Internet for people to spy on you with. It also probably wouldn't be able to store any data to the hard drive to send later. Besides, Microsoft barely has enough time to respond to technical support questions. You think they have the time to perpetually observe Xbox customers, even if it were possible? I can pretty much guarantee that anything the Kinect sees/hears while the console is off is strictly between you and the Kinect.

However, I get the impression that this is more than just concern over what the Kinect sees when it is off. I feel like this stems from a much deeper concern over why Microsoft wants the Kinect to be omnipresent.

Specifically, even if they aren't exactly saying so, I think people are probably more concerned about how this technology might be used while the system is on, not while it is off. They just choose to express that concern in a very limited scope in order to not sound technophobic. Rather than say, "I'm frightened over how invasive Kinect seems to be," they merely say, "I'm not sure why Kinect needs to be on all the time." It's like if you suspect your friend's brother is a drug dealer, but you don't want to come right out and say that without evidence, so instead you just say, "Your brother sure has a lot of cash on him. What does he do for a living again?" You ask a smaller question with weighted implications to get your point across without seeming irrational. But even if that smaller question has a plausible answer, that doesn't do much to change your deeper suspicions.

Honestly though, I wish more of the people who are bothered by Kinect would just come right out and say that the implications of a ubiquitous Kinect make them uncomfortable, because that's actually a pretty reasonable fear, even if there isn't really anything to support it other than speculation. They're nervous that game developers and Microsoft will use the Kinect to basically collect information from the players, even if Kinect is not required for a particular game. A device that can detect the mood and engagement of a player? Their heartbeat? Probably also able to estimate things like age, gender, living arrangements, number of pets? AAA game developers love their metrics and Kinect will allow them to collect metrics from literally everyone who uses their games. If Kinect and the Internet are both required for the console to function, they can know for certain that anyone playing their game on the Xbox One will be visible to the Kinect and that they can collect whatever metrics they like from it, within the limits and parameters set by the law and by the Kinect SDK.

And if you think you'll be able to just put blinders on Kinect, I wouldn't be so sure. After all, it seems like the Xbox One uses Kinect in order to identify and log in specific users, so I wouldn't be surprised if obscuring its vision would cause various gameplay issues. I could be wrong about that, but at the very least, now that developers know that all of the Xbox One owners will have a Kinect, they'll probably start using it more, if only for things like optional voice commands.

Don't freak out too much, though. They probably won't be able to collect actual sounds and images, at least not without explicit permission in one of the EULA's for the game. Your house is private property and it is illegal to record individuals without their permission on their private property. But they really don't need to. They just want the data that Kinect gathers. Images and sounds take space and time, but statistics and metrics are easy to transfer and compile, and you can bet your ass that every marketing department in the industry will want to take advantage of this.

I can imagine the meetings now:

"Our metrics show that 95% of players expressed visual shock and increased heart-rate after the jump scare in the first level, but subsequent jump scares seemed less effective, increasing overall disengagement and only rendering visible shock in 45% of players by the end. Furthermore, our demographic..." yadda yadda yadda. Numbers! So many numbers! And we aren't talking sampling sizes anymore. We're talking everyone. Everyone will have a Kinect, everyone will have an Internet connection, and everyone will be counted. And they don't have to ask you how you feel. They can just read your expression. It might not be 100% accurate, but it'll probably be much more informative than what they rely on currently.

And that's just off the top of my head. Honestly, there's probably no reason why game developers couldn't use the Kinect to know just about everything about their player base, so long as it is something Kinect is capable of determining.

What's more, with Microsoft trying to push the Xbox One as a ubiquitous portal for TV and streaming video, you can bet that cable networks and advertisers will be interested in these metrics too.

To put it simply, Microsoft can't and won't look at you while you play video games in your underwear. However, they will probably know that you play video games in your underwear. They will probably generate spreadsheets and pie charts saying that you and 34,216 other gamers played "Call of Duty: Ghosts" in your underwear, and that those gamers also had a higher than average probability of drinking Pepsi rather than Coca-Cola.

I'm pretty sure that's what people are really terrified about, and I understand that. Privacy and anonymity can be comforting and anything that trespasses that comfort-zone tends to be repulsive. It happens all the time and it's a very human reaction, no matter how comfortable with technology you might be.

Even recently with Google Glass. In Engadget's review of the first released version of the device, they dedicated a whole section to discussing their privacy concerns, specifically with the video recording capabilities:

The point can certainly be made that it's possible to take a picture or video of someone these days without their knowledge, but the situation here is a bit reversed: nobody knows if you're not taking a picture or video of them. This will, at first, result in some good-natured "Are you recording this?" comments in conversations but, as time goes on, as a wearer, you'll notice that people will be acting a little more cautiously around you. [Tim Stevens (Engadget)]

Again, this is a journalist who writes for a website dedicated to news regarding technology and gadgets. This is not a technophobe, and you don't have to be one to find the idea of someone with Google Glass walking into a locker room with the video feed turned on more than a little skeevy.

But this is the world we're moving towards. And we've been moving towards it for generations.

Privacy is a luxury and a privilege, but I think a lot of us actually take it for granted. When something invades our privacy, our displeasure is expected and inherently justified. But why? Why is our privacy so important to us?

Well, that's usually when people start bringing up Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury. If governments and businesses know everything about us and we can't hide anything from them, what's to stop them from controlling us absolutely? And this is perfectly reasonable, but the inherent problem in these fictional dystopias isn't just that the citizens have no privacy, it's that the citizens have less privacy than the ones in charge. Big Brother sees all from the shadows, but if Big Brother is as exposed to the citizens as the citizens are to Big Brother, suddenly the dynamic shifts.

The future we are moving towards isn't a future where the government or the corporations know everything about us. It's a future where everybody knows everything about everyone. My congressman might be able to see my embarrassing Facebook photos, but Congressman Weiner will never live down his infamous crotch-tweet. Do you think Orwell imagined a world where a picture of Big Brother's erection would be immortalized in the public consciousness? Our future is a future where privacy isn't a luxury possessed by the ruling class, but a luxury possessed only by those who refuse to embrace technological advancement. If you don't want people with Google Glass to record you in the locker room, you'll either have to get them to take them off or you'll have to somehow change the way they function in certain rooms. Either way, the only way to protect your privacy is to find some way to prevent this technology from being used. And if the technology becomes more and more popular, that might get harder and harder to do.

Sure, we might create laws that make it illegal to wear AR glasses in areas with specific designations. But what happens when it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between AR glasses and normal glasses? What if they develop AR contact lenses? What if everyone starts using AR glasses? How do you enforce that sort of thing? Do you turn all locker rooms and bathrooms into dead zones that scramble all wireless communication? Would people be willing to stop using their mobile devices in the bathroom if it meant knowing that they wouldn't be recorded by someone with AR glasses? Would the next generation be willing to? Would the generation after that?

Similarly, we might create laws that say that companies can only gather metrics based on information gathered by Kinect with the express permission of the owner of Kinect, but how many of us actually read EULAs? And what if I agree to an EULA but my Kinect gathers metrics about my roommate who never agreed to anything? How would Kinect be able to distinguish between us? Would our government even care enough or understand technology enough to try and pass this sort of law? Would any judicial body care enough to enforce it?

This is why I think that even if we initially resist these sorts of technological advancement, we won't be able to stop the tide from coming in eventually.

In the course of history, when has new technology ever been completely resisted and done away with? When have we ever invented something and then decided that we shouldn't have it, and thus outlawed it and gone back to the way things were before? Have we ever done that? We invented a weapons defense system that can literally kill the entire planet, and as much as we all seem to want to, we cannot do away with it.

The technology in Kinect is simply too useful not to be used. We can and should do everything in our power to prevent it from being abused, but this technology will be used, and it will probably be used in the earliest of launch titles.

If this scares you, don't worry. This future without privacy won't come quickly. But it will come, generation by generation. My generation was the one that discovered Facebook, and when it became ubiquitous, we feared for our privacy. But we didn't stop using it. Even so, we coined terms like Facebook-stalking, customized our settings so that only our most trusted friends could see our personal information, and immediately started freaking out when our parents and employers started friending us.

In stark contrast, the younger generation seems to have a different relationship with Facebook. They seem to generally like the idea of having all of their information out there for the world to see. They don't care about seeming clean-cut or particularly intelligent. They are much less filtered and seem to embrace it. Maybe that will change as they grow older, but I think it may prove to be a major generational difference.

Really, this is the way it has always been. With each new generation, clothes become skimpier, sex becomes wilder, words become shorter, and lines become blurrier. "Kids today" will always disregard the things we always just assumed were universally sacred because they approach the world without our preconceptions.

While you and I might feel that the concept of a camera in our bedroom or our bathroom to be terrifying and violating, I can't guarantee that the next generation will feel the same way, particularly if that's the world they grow up in. "So what if there's a camera in my bedroom? There are cameras everywhere!"

And frankly, there are parts of this somewhat troubling future that I find intriguing, exciting even. Yes, Microsoft and EA will probably know far more about their customers than ever before, but you know something? I expect they'll probably be surprised at what they learn. What they might have always assumed was conventional wisdom about their audience will probably prove inaccurate. I expect a lot of executives will sit around a table, look at charts and be surprised at how many gamers are women, or African-American, or middle-aged, or physically disabled. With this wealth of information, they'll know exactly what their audience is like without having to assume. They'll know what their audience responds to, both positively and negatively, without us having to write incredibly overwrought diatribes on our blogs that they'll never see. And while some people find this creepy, I think that it's exactly what the industry needs right now: A better understanding of the diversity of its audience.

Too much of the industry is focused on a very specific kind of gamer within a very conventional demographic, and it's been hard to change that because there's no reliable way for a game developer to know what kind of people are buying games these days. They bank on the same tired and out-dated demographics because anything else involves too much risk. They don't want to target niche demographics because they don't know enough about them.

And game developers are already using a lot of metrics in their games and learning things they might not have initially expected. For example, BioWare tends to collect metrics based on what sort of relationships their players choose in their RPGs. This led them to implementing a lot more LGBT options in these games without feeling the need to apologize to "offended" straight male gamers. To quote:

We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… [David Gaider (BioWare)]

This is the sort of thing that I like. Gaming will no longer be represented exclusively by idiots and 17-year-old white boys who think that their money is worth more than the money of the people they supposedly outnumber. Each gamer's voice will be heard and hopefully represented in turn, not out of compassion, but out of the same capitalistic greed that foolishly ignored them in the first place.

I know a lot of people take issue with the idea of targeted advertising. Even Microsoft itself has used this to try and bash Google in a painfully stupid advertisement for Outlook:

Obviously there is no creepy, blue-faced individual at Google who goes through all of your e-mails and sends you ads, like this video implies. It's all done anonymously through computers and algorithms.

But still! It's creepy! It's an invasion of privacy!

Maybe so, but you know what? Advertisements are a lot less annoying when they're for products I actually want. And it also makes them more effective, which makes them more profitable for the people using them, which means people who rely on advertising for a living (basically anyone who makes a living on web-based content) get paid better. And Google, who make almost all of their billions of dollars through advertising, use their capital to also fund innovative research and development that benefits the world on a daily basis. You may not like Google, but few could imagine an Internet without them.

A lot of us have been around since the Internet first exploded in popularity, and part of what we tend to find appealing (or at least reassuring) is anonymity. To us, anonymity is an intrinsic part of the Internet, for good or ill. But I'm here to tell you that it probably won't be that way forever.

That might be disturbing to think about, but there's a positive side to it as well. As we become more and more visible on an individual level, each and every one of us has a more significant impact on the world we inhabit. Rather than make us all homogenous, we'll actually become more distinct. More varied. Each voice will be heard and processed and added to the pie chart. And most of us won't even notice the difference.

Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? It will probably be both. Technology is inherently neutral and people are capable of both good and bad. All we can do is try and minimize the bad without sacrificing too much of the good.

So sure, let's all be skeptical. Let's all be critical. Let's find out exactly what Kinect will be used for. But let's also understand that just because something crosses a line, it doesn't necessarily follow that the line was important. And let's also understand that caution and hesitation is not always the same thing as wisdom.