Could your PVR be infringing your privacy?

Digital set-top boxes

tivo.jpgInteresting news from the US, where TiVo has launched a service called StopWatch which sells real-time information to broadcasters and advertisers on what shows TiVo subscribers are watching, and which adverts they’re skipping.

The San Francisco Chronicle has picked up on the potential privacy implications, eliciting this quote from TiVo exec Todd Juenger: “I promise with my hand on a Bible that your data is not being archived and sold.”

Worried yet?

In this case, TiVo appears to be merely selling anonymous sample data across a random selection of its users, rather than telling Pepsi that Mr J.Doe of 17 Wisteria Lane skipped their expensive new ad last Friday evening. But the news does raise a bunch of issues around PVR technology.

The main question is this: if we have the right to skip adverts using our shiny new PVRs, do the advertisers then have the right to know that we skipped them? Does the company which controls your PVR (TiVo in the US, but over here it’d be Sky or Virgin Media) have the right to collect info on your preferences and sell it on?

The short answer is yes. Whether you’re happy with it is another question. Judging by the number of people with Nectar and Tesco clubcards, we’re not too fussed about our habits and preferences being slapped into a huge database for commercial usage.

The positive way at looking at the gathering of PVR viewing data is that it might help improve our viewing. Advertisers might make better ads, the TV firms might make better programmes, and the broadcasters might have more information on our likes and dislikes, which could filter into their decision-making when putting together video on demand services.

The negative side? Well, there’s always the fear of who else would like to get their hands on this kind of information – although TiVo tells the Chronicle that even if the Government came knocking, it wouldn’t be able to supply data on individual named subscribers.

Still, it’s important that these privacy issues are out in the open, especially when for many consumers, buying a PVR is mainly about being able to time-shift their favourite shows and skip the ads, with little thought given to the privacy implications.

Stuart Dredge
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