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Privacy concerns threaten to overshadow Microsoft's new console

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The Xbox One brings with it a required peripheral packed with microphones and cameras that can monitor a person's every movement and word spoken and could be used to track not just what a person plays, watches and listens to, but exactly how they do so.

During last month's unveiling of the Xbox One on Microsoft's Redmond campus, developers showed off how the Kinect can track eye movement to monitor how attentive a player is, use "blush technology" to monitor a player's heart rate, see movements in the dark and even extrapolate a person's mood by watching their face closely.

What Microsoft officials didn't detail, and continue to decline to talk about, is exactly how that data will be used and if any of it will leave a player's home to either be processed by Microsoft's cloud service or collected for other reasons. While Sony's upcoming PlayStation 4 also has a camera, it is not required for the console to work, Sony officials told Polygon.

Because the Xbox One will also deliver ads, stream movies and provide cable television access, there is the potential for the company to marry those technologies together to create a sort of next-gen focus group system that could theoretically provide everyone from the people who want to sell you a soda to the creators of television shows, movies and games, very precise information about how you react to their creations.

The notion of a device that can be so intrusive, even with a consumer's consent, is drawing concern from a number of international privacy activists and at least one government official.

Tim Vines, a director at Civil Liberties Australia, told the Syndey Morning Herald that Microsoft has an obligation to be "honest about what information's being collected and how it's going to be used."

Peter Schaar, Germany's federal commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, is also concerned about the privacy implications of the Xbox One, telling German news magazine Der Spiegel that it is a monitoring device.

"No privacy policy can stop a hacker from breaking into things."

While the new Kinect brings with it quite a number of new abilities and innovations, and will be a requirement for the Xbox One, the original Kinect foreshadowed both some of this technology and concerns.

Microsoft created an entire page dedicated to privacy and online safety for the current device. In it, the company addresses what "safeguards are provided to help [families and parents] manage their family's entertainment experiences and protect their privacy and online safety.

"As leaders in the video game industry, Microsoft is proud to have led the effort to create and build in safety and privacy measures and today virtually all of Microsoft's consumer products feature family safety features, including Kinect."

In Microsoft's general public online privacy statement, the company says it "collects and uses your personal information to operate and improve its sites and services." That includes, according to the statement, "performing research and analysis aimed at improving our products, services and technologies; and displaying content and advertising that are customized to your interests and preferences." But Microsoft specifically says on a different page, that the policy for the current Kinect does not allow Kinect data to be used for marketing purposes or for personalized advertising. Collected anonymous aggregate data, though, can be used to help plan "new experiences."

However, the new Kinect could bring with it new privacy policies, something Microsoft officials continue to decline to comment about in the lead up to the annual E3 video game conference. In the vacuum of fact created by Microsoft's decision to go silent on the topic, internet sleuths dug up a pair of troubling patents filed by Microsoft over the past 12 months. One is for a device adjusting the rental price of a movie based on the number of people in your living room. The other would reward users for watching advertisements. It's unclear if either patents would be used for the Xbox One, because Microsoft has declined to comment about them.

Jennifer A. Rode, an assistant professor at Drexel University who specializes in human computer interaction, says some of the privacy concerns surrounding the Xbox One are very reminiscent of the issues raised when Tivo was first announced. At the time, she said, people were concerned about how the company would be using information about television watching habits.

The difference here, she said, is that it's not just viewing habits raising concerns, but the ability to stream video and audio and track very precise information about a person. That data, if it ever leaves a person's home, could be compromised.

"I'm always concerned about the effects of an unknown sensor."

"No privacy policy can stop a hacker from breaking into things," she said. "If it's being processed on the cloud, it's liable to be grabbed."

She also raised concerns about the technology being abused in ways the engineers never considered, a common problem when new sensors are introduced into the marketplace.

For instance, she said, a company once introduced bed sensors into an eldercare home. The sensors were designed to show if a person wasn't moving so a family member could alert health care staff. But to the chagrin of family, it also provided data that showed when the elderly were having sex.

"This is another input sensor," she said about the Xbox One's Kinect. "I'm always concerned about the effects of an unknown sensor."

With a clear, public-facing privacy policy and user agreement still lacking, it remains unclear whether Microsoft's innovative new console is designed with consumers in mind or as the ultimate gatekeeper for an entertainment conglomerate.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and their bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.