Watching TV with Big Brother, or is it watching you?

Panasonic’s newly unveiled Viera Smart TV remembers your face, raising privacy concerns.

Viera Smart TV unveiled in Las Vegas 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Panasonic)
Viera Smart TV unveiled in Las Vegas 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Panasonic)
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 own homes.
Fast forward to 2013, and a private company – Panasonic – has unveiled the modern-day technological equivalent with its new Viera Smart TV.
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 digital pen.
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 concerned.
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 television.
“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 not yet laid out a privacy policy or standards of use for the camera pertaining 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.
“The 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 experience.”
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.
“Services that 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 its users.
“TV is now connected to the big data system that increasingly shapes all of our lives,” says Chester.