TiVo watchers uneasy after post-Super Bowl reports

Privacy concerns resurface after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash dance prompts TiVo to show off that it can tell what viewers are watching.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
5 min read
Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash dance was shocking in more ways than one: Some TiVo users say the event brought home the realization that their beloved digital video recorders are watching them, too.

On Monday, TiVo said the exposure of Jackson's breast during her halftime performance was the most-watched moment to date on its device, which, when combined with the TiVo subscription service, lets viewers pause and "rewind" live television broadcasts, among other features.

TiVo said users had watched the skin-baring incident nearly three times more than any other moment during the Super Bowl broadcast, sparking headlines that dramatically publicized the power of the company's longstanding data-gathering practices.

"It's just sort of creepy," longtime TiVo subscriber Sandra Munozshe wrote in an e-mail to CNET News.com.

A TiVo spokesman said the company operates well within established privacy standards. For years, TiVo has disclosed its data-gathering practices in user agreements, saying it strips out any information that could be traced back to an individual viewer.


What's new:
TiVo-related privacy concerns resurfaced this week after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash dance prompted the maker of the digital video recorder to show off that it can tell what viewers are watching.

Bottom line:
Although TiVo has always disclosed its data-gathering practices, the new wave of complaints may indicate that it still has work to do to convince customers that it's protecting their interests.

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Although TiVo could conceivably investigate an individual's viewing habits, it doesn't, a spokesman said. But it does occasionally mine data from a random sampling of 20,000 homes viewing a particular program, as it did during the Super Bowl.

"I can understand people's concerns," said spokesman Scott Sutherland. "But when weighted against reality, they are unfounded."

Privacy issues hitherto associated mainly with PCs are beginning to ripple into the living room with the arrival of new devices, such as digital video recorders (DVRs), that offer interactive features. Once one-way receivers, televisions and even radios are becoming two-way devices capable of sending information back to service providers. The shift promises to fundamentally change the ground rules for media, which increasingly must adhere to new privacy standards to ensure that new technologies aren't abused in the name of demographics and the like.

The minicontroversy over privacy at TiVo underscores growing consumer awareness over industry practices that have been standard for years on the Internet but are only now beginning to spill out into other media. DVRs, which function like a VCR but record shows on a hard disk instead of on videotape, bring interactive features to TV that promise to transform the industry. Among other things, the devices can recommend shows based on a given user's past viewing choices, pause live programming and skip commercials.

Since they let consumers jump quickly over ads, DVRs have been in the spotlight as a potential thorn in the side of network TV. But the networks have also been tantalized by the devices' ability to track viewer behavior, intelligence that could ultimately be used to improve the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and so forth.

A full Nielsen
TiVo this week signed a deal to provide data to Nielsen Media Research, a leading provider of information on television-viewing habits. Under the agreement, TiVo will supply Nielsen with anonymous data on the habits of subscribers who have agreed to hand over their information, giving Nielsen its first look at the tendencies of DVR users. Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said Thursday that the next deal Nielsen reaches with TiVo, or any other DVR supplier, will involve more valuable demographic information about viewers, such as age or sex.

"It's a natural step," Loftus said, because it makes Nielsen's services dramatically more valuable to the company's advertiser clients.

Most consumer data collection is done for marketing purposes, resulting, at worst, in more junk mail for those whose name winds up on a given list. Still, some privacy advocates worry that intimate data--once collected--may take on a life of its own, either by mistake or through malicious behavior. Such information could be damaging, if it wound up as evidence in court proceedings or in other unexpected contexts.

Companies that hope to gather and market consumer data have downplayed consumer concerns, arguing that surveillance fears are misplaced. Many have been working for years to assure customers that their practices are benign, creating and pushing for the adoption of practices they claim will minimize privacy risks.

For example, consumers can already count on some basic privacy protections, thanks to business practices hammered out years ago on the Net. Commonly accepted procedures include removing from databases any information, such as account numbers or device serial numbers, that could be used to identify an individual. Such agreements have led to information collection practices that typically provide researchers with what's known as aggregated data--figures that show how many people engaged in a particular activity at any given time but not who, specifically, did what.

In a bid to prevent malicious or inadvertent privacy leaks, data-mining companies such as IBM have developed techniques to encrypt data at the source in ways that preserve enough information to provide useful statistics, while at the same time destroying the primary data.

Lee Tien, lead staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization concerned with online privacy and other issues, gave TiVo high marks overall for guarding its customers' personal data. But Tien said the deal with Nielsen pushes the envelope, because it threatens to remove the anonymity from the data collected. "So long as they are only selling anonymized data, then the privacy issues are not at all that great," he said.

Rewinding TiVo habits
So what information does TiVo collect about its viewers? The company can indeed tell what has been watched on a particular TiVo box, down to the second, including the number of times a moment was rewound and played again, or a commercial was skipped.

The information is transmitted back to TiVo headquarters in Alviso, Calif., via the same phone line used to download show schedules to the DVR inside a home. The information itself is used to automatically suggest which shows a viewer would like, based on previous selections.

But for all the granularity involved in tracking viewing habits, TiVo said there's nothing personal attached to the resulting data, as promised in its subscriber privacy policy.

"There is no demographic information sent back to TiVo," Sutherland said. "TiVo doesn't know any of that."

In fact, it's Nielsen that will be reaching out to TiVo users for the more personal information, if and when it decides to take that step, Loftus said.

Those concerned about being part of the sporadic random samplings TiVo conducts, such as the one taken during the Super Bowl, can call an 800 number to opt out.

If this week's wave of complaints offers any clues, though, TiVo may still have some work to do to convince customers that it has their interests at heart.

"Make no mistake, I do clearly love the box," engineer and longtime TiVo user Jerrell Wilson wrote in an e-mail to CNET News.com. "I have been a tireless sales rep with all my friends. I should be on commission from TiVo. Thus arises the most severe form of anger: that deriving from a perceived betrayal of trust."