July 25, 2013 at 9:16 AM ET
As government, civil libertarians and tech companies continue to wrangle over revelations about the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance of computers and phones, little has been said about another key digital member of the American family household: video game consoles.
That may not be as much of an issue with current-generation hardware — the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Wii. But as Sony's promise to integrate the PlayStation 4 with Facebook and Microsoft's introduction of Skype to the Xbox One indicate, consoles are becoming as connected as the other devices we use every day. But in addition to regularly connecting to the Internet, the next-gen systems from Microsoft and Sony, due out later this year, will feature sophisticated motion- and voice-controlled technology engineered to recognize individuals.
Microsoft has said that its new Kinect, which comes bundled with the Xbox One, is so precise that it will even be able to monitor users' heart rates.
"Video game consoles pose problems akin to those of mobile phones because users often have very little visibility into what the devices are doing and very little control over the software running on the devices," Seth Schoen, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in an email to NBC News.
Not only that, new consoles may be increasingly of interest to those who would like to get more spy data. "They increasingly have audio and video sensors watching what goes on in people's living rooms," wrote Schoen. "And we know that governments have been discussing the idea of being able to tap in-game conversations for years, in keeping with the pattern of trying to develop the ability to spy on each and every communications medium."
Game critics have been raising issues about user privacy and security on the PS4 since last February, when it was announced. At that time, David Perry, CEO of Gaikai, a cloud computing company and Sony subsidiary, said that "the PlayStation Network will get to know you by understanding your personal preferences and the preferences of your community."
The PS4 was designed to track its users and turn them into better, more efficient consumers by doing things like pre-loading games that the PlayStation Network predicts someone will like — and that's not to mention the console's promised integration with social networks like Facebook.
Since the PS4 reveal in February, the company has announced new features like "The PlayRoom," a pre-installed "augmented reality" app that scans the living room with the PlayStation camera. And while Sony didn't make the camera a system requirement in the same way that the Kinect is for the Xbox One, it's had little to say about how users will be able to control what, exactly, the camera keeps track of.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has repeatedly insisted that users do have a good deal of visibility and control over how the Xbox One and Kinect will operate. While the Kinect's default settings initially led some critics to suggest the device will "always be listening," a Microsoft spokesperson told NBC News that, with the exception of the games and other applications that "require Kinect functionality to operate," users can essentially render the device inert.
"With Xbox One and Kinect, the user knows when the camera or mic is on, the user has the ability to turn them off, and when it comes to the raw data produced by Kinect, the user controls whether it is shared with Microsoft," the spokesperson said.
Because the Kinect still has to be connected to the Xbox One at all times, however, much of this user customization of its privacy policies is at the software level. Microsoft maintains that, "just like other devices with cameras or mics, whether or not you can unplug or remove it from the device is immaterial if the product is configured in a way that protects users’ privacy."
Hardware vs. software warning
But Christopher Soghoian, senior policy analyst and principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, is not convinced.
"Companies may have the best of intentions," Soghoian said. While gaming consoles may be identical to any other device with a camera or microphone, he said that the key difference with consoles is "where the cameras are" — in people's living rooms and bedrooms.
"Putting a camera on a toaster isn't as much of a concern because you tend to not make food naked for the simple reason that hot oil and nudity don't go well together," he said. But when it comes to something like the Kinect or the PlayStation camera, "the only other place that's more compromising is the bathroom."
The "obvious solution," he believes, should be a hardware-level warning like an LED indicator that notifies users whenever the Kinect is turned on and watching a user in one way or another.
"There's a difference between a software warning and a hardware one," Soghoian said. "A software warning can lie to you, a hardware one cannot."
Microsoft told NBC News that the new Kinect — like its predecessor on the Xbox 360 — will have an indicator on the device to alert users when the device is turned on and active. But if you're still not convinced that such warnings can be thwarted, Soghoian said that users can always put a sock over the device to block its camera.
Microsoft says that it couldn't really share any compromising user data simply because it won't have any of that data in the first place.
"Microsoft can only be compelled to provide data that it already stores or processes," the company said in an emailed statement to NBC News. "If a government agency wanted to access the data that is stored and processed locally on the console, they would first need to be in physical possession of the console. This data isn’t stored or processed by Microsoft servers so we couldn’t provide it in response to a government order served on us."
In addition, "for both legal and practical reasons we don’t believe we would be obliged to provide data that we store on our servers in an anonymized fashion," the company said. "And finally, absent a new law, we don’t believe the government has the legal authority to compel us or any other company that makes products with cameras and microphones to start collecting voice and video data, and we’d aggressively challenge in court any attempts to try and force us to do so."
To Schoen, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the real issue is consumer awareness: People need to stop viewing consoles as simple playthings and appreciate the fact that these devices pose the same privacy concerns as any other modern technology now does.
"It's more difficult to get people to worry about the loss of control over their video game consoles than about the loss of control over their mobile phones because consoles are seen as 'toys,'" Schoen said.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.