Who’s watching who?

Fears that smart TVs can eavesdrop on conversations were recently sparked by a sentence in Samsung’s privacy policy. The sentence has been removed and Samsung states it doesn’t record everyday conversations. But corporations still want your data.

Samsung may have backed down, but smart TVs still have the ability to capture audio, as well as a camera for face recognition. Corporations aren’t interested in your private life in the way your neighbour is, but they do want your data. Everything in your private life is potential data; data fuels targeted advertising, advertising is potential revenue. We just don’t have the technology yet to capture, record and analyse everything. Yet.


Staring at the ceiling, I wonder if there’s anything interesting on TV. “TV,” I mutter. A documentary flicks into life on my ceiling. I don’t even need to browse the channels, the software analyses my personal profile and, based on the correlation between my current life circumstances and known viewing preferences, finds a particular documentary to be suitable tonight.

Recent data capture shows that I’m looking to move house. We’ve moved on a long way from the “you might be interested in” suggestions and adverts based on browsing history. Sophisticated psychological profiling means we present what you want to see without you having to choose. Oh, you can still choose, but why bother when the TV programmes and products selected for you are so appropriate? Why waste valuable time comparing? Who has time for that when every spare gap is filled keeping up with news from our social circles via status updates, email or chat.

The best match is selected for me. Or rather the one that will best hold my attention while also motivating me to boost the economy, or more accurately the company profits. Otherwise known as spend some of my bio-survival tickets — my money. I should know. I work on the software.

“Today we are visiting the Johnston family from Kent, one of the first families to live in a SmartHouse.

“We have a screen in every room. Actually every wall. Building regulations brought in in 2055 mean that it is a requirement for all walls to be interactive in any new homes built — bringing all new-build houses up to a modern standard. At my fingertips I can bring up a screen of any size.

“I can watch any programmes I like, access my social media or email and make and receive video calls from anywhere in the house using voice commands. Facial recognition means that alerts specific to me will light up when I enter a room. My voice or fingerprint is needed to access them so I have no worries about privacy.”

“So the screens are watching and listening all the time?”

“Absolutely. They are always on standby. It means I can access the information I want instantly. I don’t know how we managed without it, actually. If I slip in the shower and knock myself unconscious the emergency services will be at my door within 15 minutes. An intruder will bring the security services here even faster.

“*When I’m working late at the office I can check that my kids are safely home by logging on to my house. They are good kids though, they update me via chat all the time. I don’t know how parents got to know their kids before Facebook.”

Facebook has been a goldmine, especially since it merged with some of the other leading social media companies. Years ago Facebook merged with Google then Apple acquired Disney, which had already merged with Time Warner, Apple merged with Microsoft… and so it went on, major communications companies merging or buying smaller ones. The brand names have been retained at least in some capacity because brand loyalty brings in a great deal of revenue, but increasingly they are meaningless. Several deals were blocked for years in the interests of maintaining competition, but eventually one by one each was passed, thanks to investor-state dispute settlements.

The company I work for has a stake in most of the major communications channels now; we have complete control over social media. Of course G4S technically owns us now, but our brand is still the face of communications.

In Lucy’s room I can hear Barbie crying on “Barbie and friends” because she can’t get a dream pony paddock. A sorrow dear to Lucy’s heart — there was a run on them before Christmas and now they’re out of stock. Next month a new edition will be brought out, though. Robotic ponies that jump over fences. That one’s going to cost a lot of people their whole second salary for the month. Sigh.

Lucy’s only seven, but she’s got my brain. Scrap that, she’s got three times my brain. She can manipulate numbers in a way I could only dream of at her age. But she tells me she’s dropping maths as soon as she is allowed. She wants to open a “dream beauty salon”. There’s a flaw in our software right there. Targeted children’s marketing; it works wonders for shifting toys. We’ve taken last century gender division to a whole new level and managed to sustain pink mania well into the teens and adulthood. We even have different toilet seats in the house, ergonomically shaped to maximise comfort for men and women. Two of everything.

But a brain like Lucy’s is a loss to the corporation. The psychoanalysis of children by our software is still too generic, we should tweak that so we can select our future star staff.

Data capture is everything. We watch everything. We listen to everything. I don’t mean we as in a team of spies sitting in a room full of screens in some Orwellian nightmare. That would be ludicrous and boring, we don’t care about the mundanities of your life. In the early part of the century, many were worried about their privacy; others dismissed the worries saying, “I have nothing to fear as I have nothing to hide”.

No one can hide now. Although to be fair we don’t care what you do, so long as you spend. Data is captured, stored and analysed constantly. Profiles are built, matches made and desires fuelled. It’s all automatic. There is no Big Brother watching, just datastreams, databases and some very sophisticated software that we continue to refine. We log that you cheated on your wife, but only because that’s data that can be used to fuel guilt-driven gift shopping. Expect a lot of jewellery advertisements.

I often joke that a murderer would be targeted with stain-resistant knives. We want to know everything about you, your activities and your personality because information is data and data can be analysed. Data is targeted advertising, which is money. Everything in your private life is potential data, potential revenue. Thanks to people like me, we have the technology to capture, record and analyse practically everything.

Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of voice recognition.

That sentence was removed from TV manuals way back in 2015. They didn’t have the technology to capture and analyse personal conversations then anyway, or the capacity to store that amount of data. But we do now. That’s thanks to the Communications Data act of 2015. The British government at the time believed there should be no form of communication that the government was unable to read. To maintain security and safety, data about web browsing, social media and email communications started being stored and made available to the government and security services. They were criticised by civil liberties campaigners but since the Human Rights Act was scrapped and rewritten that year with, shall we say a lot of wriggle room, civil liberties weren’t really an issue. After all, everyone has the right to be protected from terrorism.

That’s when the SmartTrack project was formed, seeing the potential in this huge databank of information for advertising revenue. SmartTrack was funded by one of the telecommunications giants of the time. Sophisticated software was developed that could analyse that huge dataset. All the major companies wanted in on our software, of course, and things just snowballed from there.

The information was only meant to be available to the British government and security services initially, but thanks to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the introduction of Investor-State Dispute Settlements we, with a lot of help from our partners, were able to sue the government for lost profits and the government, seeing the benefit in our work, agreed to share the data with us. In the end, we reached a mutually beneficial agreement between the government, the security services and SmartTrack. One by one, other countries followed suit.

We did deals with the major smart TV manufacturers of the time and we then added that infamous sentence back into manuals nearly three decades ago. No one noticed, though; no one has manuals any more. The TVs are built into the walls. You can view the manual if you want, it’s available on our company website, but who needs to bother with that; our TVs are set up for you by our technicians.

The Communications Data Act was brought in to keep tabs on the population, to keep terrorists or “anti-government protesters” in check within the UK. That allowed for the existence of SmartTrack. Then SmartTrack launched our new smart TVs and major international mergers within telecommunications and the media meant our software was involved in analysing virtually every communication, at least in the western world.

Of course other governments wanted in and brought in their own communications data acts. This analysis led to targeted advertising and media, so soon millions of people were guided in their life choices through their addiction to social media, internet and TV; the targeted advertising this addiction allowed for fuelled consumption to previously unheard of levels. Obviously increased consumption had to be paid for, but small business incentives meant that many people already had second incomes.

Subduing the population into a cycle of work and consumption (as we were accused of) wasn’t the goal, of course. Perhaps some right-wing governments hoped for that, but all we and our partners wanted was as much attention as possible from as many people as possible, distracting them into raising our profits. But the side effect this near monopoly on information and advertising had was a docile population. That made everything easier for the security services and governments, which in turn led to the relaxing of some of the remaining laws in favour of our corporate partners.

“You have nothing to hide if you haven’t broken any laws.”

That was another favourite justification in the early part of the century. Laws, of course, can change. Before our software was fully developed some of the leading corporations took built-in obsolescence to a new level, pressuring governments to pass laws requiring certain consumables to be replaced every two years. Some people complained that they were being imprisoned in a cycle of working and spending by unreasonable consumption expectations, but most were glad of the excuse to keep up with styles.

The “obsolescence laws” were sold to the public as a safety precaution after a spate of completely accidental toaster fires resulted in the deaths of three children and an elderly woman. The laws were sold to politicians on the basis that they would boost the economy, create more jobs, make everyone ultimately richer. We are richer. At least we have more money coming in than we did before; most of us work two jobs. Some of us even run our own businesses on top. We have to in order to keep pace. We still can’t afford to retire, though. I’ve watched it all unfold and I’ve helped build it.

“So do you feel your smart home has brought you closer together as a family?”

“Oh definitely, we can all watch our favourite shows at night in our own rooms but keep a group family chat window open. I tell my kids I love them via chat every night.”

“Off.”

The sun has set. I lie on my bed staring at the ceiling. The chat icon on my old-fashioned ceiling-embedded TV set is lit up. So is the private message icon. A flashing arrow tells me I have at least one vid call message, probably from my wife in the next room. The red LED stares at me, a silent eye, watching, recording while software analyses why I haven’t responded to my alerts. I lie immobile for two hours, my personal best record with no TV or online activity. Two hours staring at a blank wall in the dark. Defying my own software.

ECONOMIC COMPONENT 2546774:

OFFLINE 2 HOURS WHILE FULLY AWAKE. NO RESPONSE TO ALERTS. 60% DECREASE IN ONLINE ACTIVITY OVER PERIOD: 1 MONTH. DATA GAP CRITICAL. ESTIMATED REVENUE LOSS FROM LACK OF TARGETED ADVERTISING EXPOSURE THIS MONTH: €1,560

ACTION POINT: INCREASE RATIO OF EMOTIONALLY CHARGED FAMILY DRAMA SCREEN TIME FOR SPOUSE.

Three hours. I can hear my partner crying in the next room, they killed off the love interest in her favourite soap. She’s in a sentimental mood now.

My door opens.

“I missed you, sweetheart, we haven’t spent any time together all week. Let’s watch the next episode of Family Ties together shall we?”

She crawls into my bed.

“TV,” she murmurs softly.

The Sullivan family are looking for a new house, they’ve just read about the new initiative to build SmartHomes and have put their name down on the list.

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Originally published at www.contributoria.com.

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