As you probably heard a couple of days ago, the federal government has been scouring Verizon’s phone records for years. Articles written by the Washington Post and Guardian and posted yesterday further accuse the NSA of collecting data from Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, Apple, and Microsoft. The data that is scoured includes e-mail, video and voice chat, photos, videos, VoIP conversations, file transfers, whatever you post on a social network, and these providers do accommodate special requests. (Source)
I encourage everyone to read over the articles and come back full of anger and fear, but I will try to make a case and voice concern over this information as best as I can in the case that you don’t.
As you may have noticed, I made sure to draw your attention to Skype and Microsoft being partners in the NSA’s collection program. Skype is actually owned and controlled by Microsoft so the separation in the article regarding data collection is a bit of a moot point, except that Microsoft clearly wants to use Skype as a platform of connecting living rooms across the world. Microsoft clearly presented this at their Xbox One Announcement event.
Ironically, Microsoft gave us a post about the Xbox One and the topic of privacy in the same afternoon that the Washington Post and Guardian articles were released. The dump of Xbox One information certainly turned my head away from the NSA story initially, but as I thought about the future generation of console hardware, I started to become more and more concerned about what data is going to the NSA, and the fact that the NSA has direct access to each of these companies’ servers.
Microsoft had a small push trying to let us know that “Your Privacy is Our Priority” earlier this year and created (almost hysterical) video content including the following TV ad to support their claim.
Now that you’ve watched that video, let me also mention that Microsoft was the first partner of the NSA, with data collection beginning in December of 2007.
Microsoft’s information about privacy on the Xbox One seems to align with their video material, and they go out of their way to tell us that if you are just talking in your living room with the Xbox One on, your conversation is not being recorded or uploaded. It is, however, listening. The Xbox One will always have to listen for key words and phrases when active, and while your privacy settings may not allow the Xbox One to hold onto your data, the device needs an Internet connection to function. If Sony hasn’t already proven this, anything connected to the Internet is open game for hackers.
The Xbox One is built on a Windows 8 kernel, which will likely make it easier for hackers to “crack” the console OS. This means that if there is a security flaw in Windows 8, it is likely that it will be an issue in the Xbox One’s OS as well due to the familiar architecture. If one of the exploits is with system devices (camera’s), and it can be translated to the Kinect, how many of our living rooms will be exposed until Microsoft is able to correct the security flaw?
Skype is a similar but slightly different issue. With every video, voice, and text chat possibly being scoured by the government, how much of our conversations with friends will be sectioned off and filtered to the NSA? What are the triggers? If there is a mention of the President by name, will a user need to worry about who is listening to Skype conversations for the next 6 months? Skype is not mentioned at all in Microsoft’s post about Xbox One privacy, and as a separate app, will have separate terms and agreements that may allow it to collect data differently than how Microsoft tells us the Kinect will collect data unless Microsoft specifically forbids it at an application level.
Sony has been pretty quiet on the privacy aspect for the PS4 thusfar. Although it was clear at their PS4 announcement that they were pretty excited about the ability to use your personal information for your profile, the ability to share posts and videos onto Facebook, and the ability to access your profile and games from anywhere using the Vita. What we’re looking at with Sony is using your real name, posting your game information and video to your personal Facebook (which is one of the companies that the NSA scours data from), and then being able to collect data from your mobile connection (Verizon WiFi hotspot, anyone?) while you’re away from home. When compounded, it gets a whole hell of a lot scarier.
What all of this may accomplish indirectly is making the teenage “hate-mongers” lose the idea of anonymity on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, and could potentially bring some of the people who stopped playing games online back for a while.
If you have an opinion about this, please feel free to leave a comment. I’ve probably missed a dozen things that I wanted to say in all of my “sourcing” of articles, but I feel this needs to be discussed because these next gen consoles are starting to look pretty scary.