Danger of Digital Television

via PlanetNews
Don’t Talk to the Press!
White Dot Infiltrates iTV Industry Trade Body
by David Burke
Part One: Privacy at the Yale Club
The subject on the email was “Media Privacy
Gang-Rape”. But he seemed sane
enough. For instance, he remained good-natured
when I told him he was
paranoid, especially in this paragraph:
“I am absolutely convinced” he wrote to me, “that
televisions are already
capable of acting as cameras which enable the
media industry and their
clients to observe and listen to everyone and
everything within line of
sight of the screen.”
What sounds more crazy than saying “I think my TV
set is watching me?” He
might as well have signed his message
“Napolean238@AOL.com”. But few people
understand this subject, and I’m glad the man
found our website. I know how
hard it is to choose the right words and
anticipate what is possible,
without losing all credibility.
For three years now, I have been studying the
privacy issues surrounding
digital interactive television, and I was able to
reassure my correspondent
that I hadn’t heard anything about cameras when I
snuck into the Addressable
Media Coalition Luncheon at the Yale Club in New
York. If those people don’t
know about surveillance gadgets in television
sets, nobody does.
The Addressable Media Coalition (AMC) is a
division of the Association for
Interactive Marketing (AIM), which has recently
been made a part of the
Direct Marketing Association (DMA), a lobbying
group for junk mailers, cold
callers and market researchers. The AMC was
established to realize the dream
of addressable advertising – a new way to profile
and target people based on
their viewing behavior, or as it is now known,
their “telegraphics”.
Prominent among the Coalition’s 34 members are
Nielsen Media Research, the
advertising giant Young and Rubicam, WebTV, which
is owned by Microsoft, and
NDS, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News
The group I work for was not invited to join. I
serve as British Director of
White Dot, a small, but nevertheless
international, campaign against
I was so disorganized that day, that when I got
to the Yale Club, I didn’t
have business cards for my fictitious company. My
suit looked nice.
“You don’t have a business card?”
“Uh, no. “
But the young man on the door couldn’t make too
much fuss. I had missed the
food, and walked straight into the AMC’s Privacy
Subcommittee meeting. The
oak paneled room of 20 people sat quietly around
their plates of cookies and
china cups of surprisingly bad coffee, listening
to a speakerphone, out of
which the CEO of BeyondZ Interactive passed on
what she knew of the lobbying
situation in Washington.
She emphasized how important it was to negotiate
something at the federal
level, before individual states could pass their
own privacy bills.
Discussion turned to their narrow escape in
California. That bill had gone
so far as to require viewers’ permission before
monitoring could begin, and
was only killed after intensive lobbying by
Microsoft and AOL. Everyone
agreed they were lucky. State Senator Debra Bowen
had been too far ahead of
the curve.
“May I ask who you are?”
I looked up, at Art Cohen, Senior Vice President
of Advertising and Commerce
for ACTV, and Chairman of the Coalition. I
recognized him from the SpotOn
promotional video he gives to advertisers.
Zoom right in – to a little street of identical
houses. Are the happy people
inside them identical as well? Oh no! They all
have different skins,
different numbers of children, make different
money and want different
things. Every time the old white couple with the
poodle click on their
remote control, it is recorded in a database on
their set-top box. The same
is true for the young black family with the
Labrador. SpotOn software
gathers this data, analyses it, and sends each of
them targeted advertising
or programs aimed at their unique behavior. The
secret: artificial
intelligence algorithms!
“See that box?” SpotOn’s head of sales in Denver
asked me at a trade show,
“That box can hold 64,000 bits of information
about you!” And that was just
the General Instruments 2000 box, not even the GI
5000 everyone was talking
“I’m a programmer” I said, “I’m just beginning to
work with interactive TV.”
Why did I give my real name? That was so stupid.
I had asked Mr. Cohen for
an interview months ago, and he had turned me
“I’ve got to be careful about what I say,” he
told me on the phone, “because
what I say could end up in a book, and I’ll be
sorry about it.”
He looked at my registration form, then looked at
“You’re not the press are you?”
“No” I said.
(a long pause.) “Okay.”
I shook his hand. It was fleshy and strong, like
his face. The fashionable,
narrow lens glasses made a nice contrast. He
looked good.
Art Cohen is very concerned about people
listening in on what he says. With
the Addressable Media Coalition, he is determined
to offer a place where
industry leaders can speak in confidence,
agreeing how to proceed before
saying anything in public.
“You don’t want to talk to the press about any of
this,” he told us over and
over. “If some bad PR got out, whether it’s true
or not, it might take us a
year to make it up.”
Everyone nodded. They all agreed they couldn’t
afford to make the same
mistakes they had on the internet – rushing into
a medium they didn’t
control, without a strategy in place, a back-up
plan, just in case users
found out about all those cookies.
Companies who make interactive television are
keen to talk about “the coming
digital revolution”, hoping viewers will forget
about the one that has
already happened. Interactive TV is really a
digital counter-revolution,
walling in the content that viewers can see, and
handing control of their
news and leisure time back to broadcasters.
DoubleClick, the internet advertising firm, got
into big trouble when they
tried to connect internet surfing data with
offline records from Abacus, a
mail-order catalog company. But television
service providers won’t have to
improvise this way. Digital set top boxes connect
on and offline data as
soon as they are installed. That is what the
machine was designed to do. A
number of companies now hope to connect the
commercials you see to the
products you buy using a supermarket loyalty
card. There is no end to this
In Europe interactive TV is a big success. But
the American industry
requires visionary leaders to overcome the
skepticism of advertisers and
viewers. Art Cohen is running for Steve Jobs. And
he might win; he talked
tough and interrupted people. He moved around the
room behind the CEOs, lost
in thought one second, commanding our attention
the next. We were all
I’ve interviewed dozens of executives in this
industry, on the phone, in
their “homes of the future” and at conferences on
interactive TV and
one-to-one marketing. These are people you will
never meet, but who will
soon know a great deal about you.
David Byrne, Senior Manager of Business
Development at Microsoft was happy
to talk about the warehouse of data that is being
collected by WebTV,
waiting for some future use. Other salesmen and
women were young and excited
to be part of the next big thing. They weren’t
sure how to handle privacy
questions, but their repeated hope was in today’s
“media-savvy youth”.
Apparently, the younger kids are, the less they
worry about privacy.
At one conference, Kirt Gunn of the advertising
consultancy Cylo had a whole
room laughing when he speculated why this might
be: “I don’t know whether it
‘s how many people read 1984 or what piece of the
puzzle it is.”
Indeed, Orwell’s book is about to lose much of
its rhetorical power. The
real experience of interactive television will
soon take its place. When
consumers discover that their TV sets are
recording what they do in their
living rooms and bedrooms, they will either stand
up and demand protection,
or, conversely, they will learn to love it.
“Big Brother,” our children may laugh someday,
“Some old guy worried about
that in the last century. But see – now they
record everything I do, and I
can order a pizza without dialing my telephone!”
The data analysts I’ve met were brilliant. I
couldn’t think of any use for
this technology that was not already being
studied or already in
Neal Muranyi of the Database Group is the man who
first coined the term
“telegraphics” to describe the data you and I
will produce each evening. He
has already seen how the insurance industry could
save millions of dollars:
“Such systems would allow, say insurers to
differentiate risk-averse
conservatives from high-living show-offs, and
then tailor both marketing
messages and risk scoring systems accordingly.”
Pat Dade of Synergy Consulting told me about his
psychographic “value
groups”, people he has surveyed and interviewed
until he is able to
categorize the emotions that make them act. Here
he describes how your
television data will be used as a digital
fingerprint, linking you into one
of them:
“Let’s say that the hypothesis is that an
inner-directed person, if they
watched da-da-da, would react in such and such a
way. Now you can test that.
You can test that at the end of each time,
because you’re starting with the
question `Can we change or reinforce behavior
based on this information?'”
Control. That’s the slogan used to sell
interactive television. But what
really excites these people is the way it creates
experimental conditions in
the home. Your TV set will be able to show you
something, monitor how you
respond, and show you something else, working on
you over time until it sees
the desired behavior.
But who nicer to push the buttons? Pat Dade spoke
like the gentle, self-help
author he could so easily have been, and he had a
nice sense of humor. When
I found out that he had worked on Echelon, the US
military’s worldwide
electronic eavesdropping system, he laughed.
“Oh yeah” he said, “We spied on everybody.”
That’s why the AMC Luncheon was such a surprise.
These guys were so hard and
aggressive, like big business baddies in a
cartoon strip.
Poor Jerome Samson, the French data analyst
working for Nielsen, was openly
ridiculed for talking too long, and a running
joke about “career terminating
statements” was thrown back and forth between
tough young sales reps.
Except for Karen Lennon of BeyondZ, none of the
women dared say anything.
And when some namby-pamby suggested explaining to
viewers about the unique
identifier and what we did with their data, Jack
Myers of the Myers Report
shot him down.
“Listen,” he said, “There really is no such thing
as privacy, unless you’
re..[Unabomber] Ted Kaczynski or something. There
is no privacy. It’s all
public relations. It’s all perception.”
At the top of the pecking order stood Art Cohen.
And he made it clear there
would be no telling viewers anything:
“Right now you’re being targeted by Nielsen,” he
said, dismissively, “This
is just better data. Nobody’s getting permission
But then, it’s like he had to go on:
“The difference is” he said, totally
contradicting himself, “this box has a
unique identifier, so you’re able to poll boxes
individually. The Cable Acts
and things that were written years ago don’t
really deal with that.”
It was then that I began to have the strangest
feeling of sympathy for Art
Cohen. I began to see how much we have in common.
Oh sure, before
congressmen he can play casual, and say the
profiling he does is no
different from the way people know their local
But in front of these advertisers, like Wes Booth
of Grey Advertising, or
Tim Hanlon of Starcom Worldwide, who was
listening somewhere on that
speakerphone, Cohen had to lay out his vision of
the coming, irrevocable
change to the way human beings live. He had to
predict the unthinkable. He
had to make people listen, but not in any way
that could appear, let’s say,
too far ahead of the curve.
“This is going to happen” he was saying again,
“Nothing is going to stop it.
The technology is so powerful! It’s not just
interactivity; it’s
targetability and accountability… All the data is
Would he find the right words? How do you
describe a future that already
takes up your entire present, that you have
studied in the smallest detail,
so that you are already living it – without
sounding crazy?
“Television is projections!” he was insisting,
“Nielsen is projections! This
will be based on actual counts! …Instead of an
unreal world of projected
data, we’re entering a real world of actual data,
census data. That
differentiates all these things from everything
that’s gone before.”
What did he say? That was good. I scribbled it
down. Census data! Why didn’t
I think of that? I’ve been so hung up on the
experimental conditions thing.
Cohen is a genius! That’s the perfect way to
describe it. This could bring
the right-wingers on board!
Anyway, I wish my email correspondent had been
there. There’s nothing like
being with people who finally understand what
you’re talking about.
Part Two: e-Trussed
In the following months, I took part in the AMC’s
Privacy Subcommittee
Meetings. These were chaired by Karen Lennon, a
very nice woman whom I would
call a privacy dove. That is, she thinks
everything will be fine as long as
the consumers are told that their civil liberties
are being spit on. But
both she and the privacy hawks, who were against
raising such issues in
public, agreed on one thing: a privacy seal was
urgently needed.
The AMC have published a Privacy Guideline
document about this matter,
explaining that an industry run system of self
regulation had to be in place
before legislators themselves understood what
interactive TV was and how it
would affect citizens’ lives. The cornerstone of
any such effort is to be a
new Privacy Compliance Seal, that the Coalition
hopes to announce with
fanfare this Autumn. The rest of the Guideline
document is written in vague
language about respect and trust, although these
two sentences do stand out:
Such security measures will vary depending on the
configuration of the
systems handling the data and the purpose of the
data collected. Financial
information, medical information, VOD/PVR/viewing
information mapped to PII
will require greater levels of security than
anonymous information regarding
clicks, viewing or purchases.
I suppose it is nice of them to fret over the
security of viewers’ financial
and medical information, but what right do they
have to all that data in the
first place?
Anyway, these meetings were held mostly by
conference call, so I will skip
the witty personal observations and get right to
the issues. What follows
are the matters that were important to members of
the AMC Privacy
Subcommittee, the group that will be creating
this new Privacy Compliance
Seal. When consumers see this seal appear on
their TV screens, reassuring
them that the highest standards are being met,
they should know what went on
in these meetings where the Seal was created.
Goal: Persuade Legislators to Scrap the Cable Act
An anomaly exists between the privacy regulation
of cable and satellite. The
1984 Cable Act is far stricter. Both privacy
advocates and broadcasters want
to “level the playing field”, except in different
directions. Members of the
Coalition were specifically advised to copy
language that Cox cable had
written up for their subscription contract. It
was considered a good first
step towards freeing interactive TV from the
Cable Act.
Goal: Keep Legislation Away from the States
It came up a number of times that state
legislatures might propose their own
privacy legislation. Debra Bowen’s proposed
opt-in legislation was discussed
a number of times. Repeatedly, it was agreed that
if legislation was to be
changed, it was best done at the federal level,
where the various media
lobbyists had more influence.
Goal: Create a Privacy Seal Before Government
Or, as Art Cohen said, “bites us in the ass”.
One of the earliest conversations of the Privacy
Subcommittee contained a
humorous moment. Everyone had been agreeing that
speed was of the essence
and that the process of creating a Seal could not
be allowed to bog down. A
lawyer on the call offered to take the initiative
and draw up a quick list
of privacy principles.
That’s when there was a silence, followed by a
bit of laughter.
Of course he couldn’t draw up such a list of
privacy principles! We hadn’t
sent out our Privacy Audit, asking all our member
companies what practices
they already had in place! We had to ask them
what data they gathered, where
it was stored, whom it was shared with,
The Privacy Audit was every question that I,
investigating these companies,
could ever want to ask. But it was more important
for the AMC’s Privacy
Subcommittee, because the last thing we all
wanted to do was put out rules
that might “cut somebody out”.
So there is the first lesson in how you create a
Privacy Compliance Seal:
Make sure it embodies the lowest common
denominator of what everyone is
already doing anyway.
Goal: Avoid Permission, Concentrate on Suitable
The Privacy Guideline document was written by
Karen Lennon and a man named
Jim Koenig of something called the ePrivacy
Group, which turns out to be a
wholly owned subsidiary of a company called
Postiva. So one would assume he
is very strong on things like viewer permission.
But in the meetings, he claimed it was not
important. He said that with
education, viewers could be made to see that
“suitable content” was more
important than “permission.”
In other words, if a television collects data and
uses that data to provide
programming that the viewer likes, and the user
doesn’t notice or sees no
reason to complain, then there is no problem.
“There is no privacy problem if content gets 100%
acceptance,” said
Koenig. …”If we can go towards relevance, that is
ultimately where we want
to go.”
This argument is seductive, and has a lovely
libertarian ring to it.
But think again about what he is saying. First of
all, there is such a thing
as the principle of privacy. And reasonable
people can argue about where to
draw lines around it. But whatever your
definition, privacy is a principle
of human rights. It must be defined somewhere and
What principle has Jim Koenig defined that the
AMC can then respect?
Absolutely none.
When he says the AMC should move away from
permission and towards
“relevance”, he implies that no principle is at
stake that would require a
viewer’s agreement. In fact, his advice to his
fellow iTV producers is not
“give consumers what they want”, but “do to
consumers whatever they let us
get away with”.
And here is a second way that Koenig’s comment
betrays his industry’s
disrespect for its customers:
The viewers he is describing, who meekly accept
his scrutiny, are not told
the truth about what he does in their homes, or
what he will do with the
data he gathers. Every month new interactive
systems are launched, and each
arrives with two sets of promotional literature:
one set for the viewers and
another for the advertisers.
Viewers are told how they will be able to order
pizzas through their TV
sets, advertisers are told about psychographic
marketing and links to huge
third party data services. Who would knowingly
‘opt in’ to that? No one. And
Jim Koenig knows it.
Yes, iTV producers and privacy advocates share a
fondness for overblown
rhetoric. But if the people in this industry
refuse to be restrained by any
principle you could discuss calmly, then we on
the outside must continue to
imagine that they will follow Koenig’s advice,
and do whatever they want
until somebody complains.
Goal: Just Get A Birthday and ZIP Code!
Now that the Center for Digital Democracy has
published its report exposing
interactive television, Ben Issacson has been
very busy. He is the Executive
Director of the Addressable Media Coalition’s
parent body, the Association
for Interactive Media (AIM) and he has been
offering himself to any news
organization covering the story, rushing to
assure viewers at home that
nothing is wrong.
“The industry plans are to collect aggregate
information for advertising,”
he told WIRED magazine, “but not to collect
information without user
knowledge and consent.”
Notice his emphasis on the word aggregate, the
implication being that even
if your data finds its way into a database, it
would never be connected to
you personally. But that is not what Ben was
saying when the Addressable
Media Coalition met behind closed doors to
discuss data collection issues
and their new “Privacy Compliance Seal”. At that
meeting, Ben was reassuring
his fellow interactive programmers that
individuals could always be
“You have one company that wants information,” he
told us, “they may ask it
directly up front, but they may see a decline in
the number of subscribers,
because the users feel it’s intrusive. On the
other end, let’s say I want
the same information, but jeez, I can’t bring
myself to ask that, because
the decline is percipitous, so I already have
their nine digit ZIP code, I’m
going to ask them for their birth date, just to
confirm it. With a 97
percent accuracy I can then derive that data of
who they are, and go buy all
that information.”
Ben Issacson is deliberately misleading reporters
and the consumers who read
about this issue. That is not surprizing; Mr.
Issacson is a paid spokesman
of the interactive advertising industry. What
needs attention though is his
use of the word “aggregate”. He and the
programmers he represents are
purposely trying to create the impression that
“aggregate” data must be
“anonymous” data, and therefore protects the
viewers who surrender it.
Not so. If the data describes a small enough pool
of subjects (individuals
with a certain birthdate in a certain ZIP code
for instance) then it becomes
possible to use that data as if it were
personally identifiable. In data
wharehousing theory, this is called a dataset’s
“granularity”. And like the
granularity of a photograph, it shows a clearer
and clearer picture of a
crowd, until it is possible to pick out
individual faces. Ben Issacson has
assured his fellow members of the AMC that he can
pick out those faces with
97% accuracy. Shall we then call his data
“personally identifiable”? Of
course! And it should be regulated as such.
As for the “knowledge and consent” Mr. Issacson
mentioned, the Addressable
Media Coalition hopes to standardize what viewers
everywhere are asked to
sign when they subscribe to interactive
television. One wording that members
liked was “Yes, I want rich personalization!”.
Who would imagine that little
phrase actually gives a cable or satellite
company the permission to do so
much? If you see these words, watch out.
Goal: Tell Us About Yourself!
It turns out that the moment you sign up for
interactive television is the
most important 15 minutes in the history of
television. Art Cohen, Chairman
of the Addressable Media Coalition, was
especially keen on this point. Set
top boxes are expensive, he told us. And if cable
or satellite companies are
going to subsedize these boxes, they will want as
much information as
possible in return, to hold and use for
When you stand there looking over your television
subscription form,
wondering why there are so many questions to fill
out, consider what Cohen
told the Coalition:
“When you put these boxes out there,” he said,
“you also want to know who
these people are, in addition to what they have
in their billing methods,
it’s very important to these cable operators that
the minute they install
that cable box, they want to give you a
The checkbox where the user opts-in our opt-out
of “rich personalization” is
important. But Cohen then described other
questions that should be asked, in
a standardized way, of every new customer:
“..whatever demographics they can collect
because, think about it, if you
don’t get that, you have to go outside to other
sources and it’s not as
accurate. The whole point being that the cable
box is a polling mechanism –
the absolute customization, media tool. You have
to get as much information
as you can on installation and in the follow up.”
Another member of the Addressable Media
Coalition, this august body which is
soon to launch its own Privacy Compliance Seal,
named Bob Williams, was
enthusiastic about the way such information could
be used, saying “Once you
get their credit card number, you can get their
whole history. There’s no
stopping you!”
Chairman Cohen saw a public relations disaster in
the making. “Sure” he
joked, “we can have DoubleClick make that
announcement. And make sure you
have plenty of press there.”
That’s funny. But what is funnier, of course, is
that DoubleClick will never
have information as complete as the people who
provide interactive
television. There are no technical obstacles to
stop these men and women
from collecting the data they want, only the law.
For information on David Burke’s book Spy TV:


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