George Orwell, it seems, missed the mark by 29 years.
In the dystopian
society he depicted in the novel 1984, Orwell painted the picture of a future in
which Big Brother, the human embodiment of a totalitarian government, was always
watching the citizens of Oceania, most often through the Telescreens in their
Fast forward to 2013, and a private company – Panasonic – has
unveiled the modern-day technological equivalent with its new Viera Smart
The feature-packed multimedia device, announced at the International
Consumer Electronics Shows in Las Vegas on Monday and slated to hit shelves in
Israel in May, can integrate content from computers, phones, tablets and the
Internet and even let you edit your photos right on the screen with a handy
But it also has a watchful eye.
“The TV recognizes
you!” a gleeful Panasonic VP remarked at the convention. Several models come
equipped with a camera that can identify its users’ faces, and greet them
accordingly with a personalized home screen – a feature that has privacy groups
Like a tablet or smartphone, the television can download
applications such as YouTube, Facebook, Hulu or even the Home Shopping Network,
which allows viewers to purchase products directly through the
“As far as I know, there’s no integration between the apps
and the camera,” says Guy Boazi, VP of products for Eurocom Panasonic, which
distributes Panasonic products in Israel.
But, he says, the company has
to third-party applications, which the company promises to vet before allowing
users to download them.
“It will take a few months to see what ecosystem
evolves in the market,” Boazi says, noting that “the security setting of each
application depends on the individual vendor.”
Those vendors, he
continues, could easily inform users through a small disclaimer that it will
track their usage, providing a veritable bonanza for data-hungry companies and
advertisers that want to know what programs each family member is watching, what
websites they are surfing and what products they are buying.
advantage that Panasonic offers is that you can choose from a variety of models,
so if you’re concerned about the camera feature, you can get a model that
doesn’t have it,” says Boazi. “Of course, then you won’t have the personalized
However, one problem, according to privacy groups, is that
many consumers are not aware that there may be cause for concern, and many
assume they have legal protection.
“The majority of people aren’t aware
that their information is being commodified by companies,” says Emma Draper, a
spokeswoman for the UK-based group Privacy International.
seem free aren’t strictly free.”
In the case of the Viera Smart, many of
the details have yet to be worked out, but for the most part, the privacy
policies and legal issues will be outsourced to the third parties that build the
applications. That may help Panasonic steer clear of legal troubles, but it does
not comfort privacy advocates.
“Television manufacturers now have privacy
responsibilities, and they can’t shirk it off to third parties,” says Jeff
Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a
Washington-based consumer protection nonprofit.
“This product makes
television a better or more potent spy on consumers through facial recognition
technology,” he says.
As a connection point for phones, computers,
tablets, emails, Google accounts, credit cards and myriad other data sources,
smart televisions have the potential to amalgamate a holistic data profile of
“TV is now connected to the big data system that increasingly
shapes all of our lives,” says Chester.