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Comcast Cameras to Start Watching You?

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If you have some tinfoil handy, now might be a good time to fashion a hat. At the Digital Living Room conference today, Gerard Kunkel, Comcast‘s senior VP of user experience, told me the cable company is experimenting with different camera technologies built into devices so it can know who’s in your living room.

The idea being that if you turn on your cable box, it recognizes you and pulls up shows already in your profile or makes recommendations. If parents are watching TV with their children, for example, parental controls could appear to block certain content from appearing on the screen. Kunkel also said this type of monitoring is the “holy grail” because it could help serve up specifically tailored ads. Yikes.

Kunkel said the system wouldn’t be based on facial recognition, so there wouldn’t be a picture of you on file (we hope). Instead, it would distinguish between different members of your household by recognizing body forms. He stressed that the system is still in the experimental phase, that there hasn’t been consumer testing, and that any rollout “must add value” to the viewing experience beyond serving ads.

Perhaps I’ve seen Enemy of the State too many times, or perhaps I’m just naive about the depths to which Comcast currently tracks my every move. I can’t trust Comcast with BitTorrent, so why should I trust them with my must-be-kept-secret, DVR-clogging addiction to Keeping Up with the Kardashians?

Kunkel also spoke on camera with me about fixing bad Comcast user experiences, the ongoing BitTorrent battle and VOD. But he mostly towed the corporate line on these issues (the monitoring your living room came up after my camera was put away).

Update: Comcast responded.

136 Responses to “Comcast Cameras to Start Watching You?”

  1. John Q Public

    Kunkel, how are you possibly going to get the boxes to do something sophisticated like “gesture-based interactivity” when you currently can’t even get them to work properly using a remote control?? Comcast Motorola DVR’s regularly ignore user-input for up to 5 minutes at a time. I’m so sick of mine I’m about to take it out in the street and smash it with a sledge hammer. Two of my neighbors have shelled out $300+ to buy HD TiVO boxes and use cable cards just to get rid of their Motorola boxes. Look on any forum where they discuss Comcast and you’ll find people rampantly complaining about this problem.

  2. elektrohem

    Come on guys, chill a bit … There is no feedback channel on cable-tv (yet). No one can watch the camera picture. The recogniction all takes place inside the box.
    But the camera idea is scary enough to make anyone stay away from Comcast I agree.

    Boxes running on internet thru broadband connection however has a feedback channel so they’re a different thing.

    • That’s the kind of attitude that allows our loss of freedoms to keep happening. It is not about anything to hide it is about PRIVACY which when slowly stripped away by new and better technology, strips away our FREEDOM. Stay out of my castle.

  3. RF Johns

    Yes a great idea but it will destroy the need for paying actors as everyone will be watching everyone else.

    Arthur Clarke,bless his soul,wrote a book close to this idea but with video wormholes.

  4. I’m sure Mr. Kunkel will be happy to have the first camera-equipped unit installed in his bedroom.

    Seriously — have they considered what a set-top box goes through in a house with children? Hope that camera can see through peanut butter finger painting.

  5. <>

    And in CA. they want to install monitoring systems to control how much elelctricity you use i.e. A.C., lights, etc. all under the pretence of avoiding a blackout in the event of overload. If this becomes law, all new houses and renovations will require this “monitor” to be installed at your cost of money, freedom, liberties or all the above.

  6. CHris H

    If Comcast or any company things I will purchase something like this they are CRAZY. Talk about big brother. Absolutely NOT. Stop wasting your time and OUR cable bill money on this crap. All you are supposed to do is send us our shows and internet. Period. Don’t need all this fancy crap that nobody wants and won’t know how to use anyways. STUPID IDEA!!

  7. serena1313

    Despite Mr. Kunkel’s assurances, I still do not like the idea. Without looking ahead into the foreseeable future, seemingly innocuous technology meant for consumer enjoyment, if modified, might become something much less benign. I do not doubt that the camera device is simply intended for the consumer’s benefit. But the possibility of where that type of technology could lead is what worries me.

    By now you’ve heard Bush threatens to veto any bill that does not include immunity for the telecoms. Despite being illegal, Bush directly ordered the telecoms to wiretap and monitor the public without warrant, probable cause and judicial oversight. Keeping that in mind (stay with me for a minute) worst case scenario:

    Theoretically, let’s say that ComCast develops the technology. At the behest of the government the camera is modified as a monitoring device. Then marketed, without disclosure, as a mandated equipment upgrade. While that particular scenario is fairly improbable it does not negate the ease in which something similar could be put into effect. Now think of what it would mean if the telecoms had immunity.

    Sure it sounds conspiratorial and far-fetched and I realize the nondisclosure part is pretty far out there, but what iam saying is opening Pandora’s box can lead to all sorts of “possible” scenarios. Considering Bush does not believe he is bound by law the aforementioned scenario does not seem quite as far-fetched. Perhaps it may never come to pass. We do not know.

    Nonetheless, as history proves, unchecked and unfettered power in the hands of the government will be abused. The current administration would love nothing more than to open Pandora’s box. Granted their tenure is about to end, but what about the next administration or the one after that?

    Enhancing the consumer’s experience is appreciated. Foresight is necessary to determine what is at stake and whether the long-term costs are worth it notwithstanding. Taking precautionary measures to safe-guard and protect our rights and privacy cannot be overstated.

    Remember once you open Pandora’s box what is unleashed can never be put back in.

  8. nASTY bOIL

    Ginsberg once told my brother that he hoped the CIA agent had a camera tied to his penis as it slide up Ginsbergs’ ass so he could shit in some peeping tom’s eye . dickhead. Hope Comecast has a middle . finger recognition unit up working soon .

  9. Chris Albrecht

    Hi Mr. Kunkel,

    Just to further clarify. After you granted me our initial video interview, you brought up the topic of Comcast knowing who was in the living room in a conversation between you, myself and another conference attendee.

    I actually left and came back to follow up on this point while you were talking with that same attendee. At this point, you were aware that I was a reporter and I took handwritten notes in front of you as we talked to make sure I had an accurate accounting of what you were saying.

    I’d love to talk further with either you or someone else at Comcast to follow up on this story.

  10. Chris,

    Your article on “Comcast Cameras to Start Watching You” portrayed some assumptions that require correction and clarification. I want to be clear that in no way are we exploring any camera devices that would monitor customer behavior.

    To gather information for your article on Comcast’s exploration of cameras you picked up on my conversation with another conference attendee. The other attendee and I were deep in a conversation discussing a variety of input devices offered by a variety of vendors that Comcast is reviewing.

    The camera-based gesture recognition device is in no way designed to – or capable of – monitoring your living room. These technologies are designed to allow simple navigation on a television set just as the Wii remote uses a camera to manage its much heralded gesture-based interactivity.

    We are constantly exploring new technologies that better serve our customers. The goal is simple – a better user experience that allows the consumer to get ever increasing value out of their Comcast products.

    As with any new technology, we carefully consider the consumer benefits. In fact, we do an enormous amount of consumer testing in advance of making a product decision such as this. I’m confident that a new technology like gesture-based navigation will be fully explored with consumers to understand the product’s feature benefits – and of course, the value to the consumer.

    Gerard Kunkel

  11. Matthew Dickinson

    You numbskulls come over here from Alex Jones’ websites. The article doesn’t say anything about a camera sending images back to Comcast. It says a type of camera is used to read data about who is in the living room — it’s not Comcast or the government watching you. The comparisons to “1984” are asinine. Comcast is a company. If you believe in free enterprise then you believe in the right for a company to provide harmless services to their customers if the customers want them. There is nothing that is forcing you to use the Comcast service.

  12. TheEndlessGlobalPreemptiveWarOnRadicalExtremistIslamoFascistTerrorism

    Haw haw haw – tinfoil hat – haw haw haw!!! Yeah, real funny dumbo. Grow up and understand that history is replete with examples of the state intruding into the lives and freedoms of the people. Do you really think America is so different?

    Why is that we always have to invoke the “cwazy conspiracy theorist” whenever we discuss something that involves the overbearing police state in America? Get used to it people – we are living in a 1984 style police state with our very own Ministry of Truth – the mainstream media. It’s just that it’s not as overt as it was in 1984.


    We have known for some time that anyone carrying a powered-on cell phone can have their physical location easily tracked. Last year, a federal judge ruled that the government could use that ability to track US residents with minimal judicial oversight. Now we are reminded that carrying a cell phone enables the government—and others—to listen to your conversations, even when you’re not using your phone.

    • The idea is to be aware and not comply with the darkside. Get it? Speakout as we are doing now or be like the frog in the slowly boiling water that gets USE TO the rising temperature
      until he finally boils to death. Ribbb-bit!

  13. NotSoParanoid

    This is nothing that a small piece of electrical tape over the lens won’t fix…so much fuss over another camera, walk down any street in London and look around, cameras are everywhere.

  14. This is exactly the sort of thing you should be enraged about, and refuse to go along with — otherwise you’re not paying attention & later you can’t complain when you realize you have no privacy in your own home.

    If I was Comcast, I’d aim to include a microphone, for the luxury of “voice commands” and IR, so the camera can see you in the dark. Later Comcast can add “auto panning” to an external camera, so it can easily follow you around the room for maximum seating comfort.

    Then, one day, this may sound eerily familiar:

    ‘Smith!’ screamed the shrewish voice from the telescreen. ‘6079 Smith W.! Yes, you! Bend lower, please! You can do better than that. You’re not trying. Lower, please! That’s better, comrade.’ — George Orwell, 1984

  15. Matthew Dickinson

    This article doesn’t tell us much and seems to be sensational. Gerard Kunkel says the camera doesn’t send pictures back to Comcast, yet everyone here is responding as though it does (and as though they are forced to buy from Comcast by law). Instead it sounds more like the recognition technology used in certain new laptops to identify the owner.

    Regarding the comment about Best Buy checking your receipts — again, it’s their store, it’s their private enterprise. You do not have to go into their store if you do not want to.

  16. Here’s three words you can take to the bank:


    This is not cool, this is not fun, this is not exciting. This is invasive. They’ve been talking about this technology since the inception of cable modems, and there’s a certain amount of tracking in place already. Cameras? too much.

  17. The scary thing will be how quickly people welcome this into their homes, probably in exchange for some discount on cable service or free video chat with friends. Make all the big brother claims you want, and people will still choose free HBO over privacy. So we cede a little more power to the corporations, just like we do when we show a receipt to a clerk watching the door at Best Buy (even though most shrinkage comes from staff), when we use a membership card to shop for groceries (so they can track our purchases), and when we offer up our thumbprints to get into Disneyland.

  18. charles

    Orwell thought that cameras in the living room would imposed on us by a fascist government. Fascism these days is dominated by corporate power guised under a mantle of legitimacy. These systems of control have been primarily put in place by willful consumption of consumer goods. Cameras with phones are the same as the boxes that Comcast is proposing.

    The interesting aspect of this is that many people will be up in arms over this, but we barely complain about all of the technology that is around already that track our actions. Online ad networks linked to medical databases and banking records and gps enabled phones that connect to LinkedIn and Facebook…

  19. Matt Brown-Reugg

    That is officially the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Talk about invasion of privacy! So that would put an end to me putting my hands down my pants to scratch my bag while eating popcorn? I can just see how some disgruntled worker at Comcast could use this and have a field day on youtube. Yikes is right. Double Yikes.

    • I found the fix for this. I bought a box that will not let anything be sent back to the cable company. It will let programing in but anything to be sent back is blocked.