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Block cameras with $20 Xbox One Kinect privacy cover?

Oct 29, 20135 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Just what you always wanted, but never knew it - an Xbox One Kinect TV mount with a removable privacy cover to block cameras...or you could turn off the sensors for free?

There’s money to be made in the privacy business, and the latest example is a $20 privacy cover on an Xbox One Kinect TV mount from a company called PDP. Okay, so it’s mainly a TV mount with a removable privacy cover tossed in to protect “your privacy by blocking both the RGB and IR cameras.”

But if you are planning to purchase the Xbox One after it launches in the U.S. on November 22, then you do know that Microsoft said the Kinect sensor can be unplugged or turned off, right? Granted, that was after a privacy-like scandal that has Albert Penello, Microsoft Director of Product Planning, still fielding related questions. For example, earlier this month on NeoGAF, when Panello was asked about NUad, he replied:

What I think you’re asking about is an interview done earlier in the year where someone was talking about how some of the new Xbox One Kinect features *could* be used in advertising – since we can see expressions, engagement, etc. and how that might be used to target advertising. This is the point that seems to draw some controversy.

First – nobody is working on that. We have a lot more interesting and pressing things to dedicate time towards. It was an interview done speculatively, and I’m not aware of any active work in this space.

Second – if something like that ever happened, you can be sure it wouldn’t happen without the user having control over it. Period.

Two examples of how we deal with similar things today:

First, Kinect can recognize your face and log you in automatically. There could be some cool features we could enable if we stored that data in the cloud, like being able to be auto-recognized at a friend’s. I get asked for that feature a lot. But, for privacy reasons, your facial data doesn’t leave the console.

Second: You’ll see us do some things around Skype that freezes the video when Skype is not in focus (meaning, it’s not the primary app). If you go back to the home screen, or launch another app, we actually stop the video stream. We do this so the user can’t even ACCIDENTALLY have the video stream going on in the background.

Penello also answered questions about Xbox One saving biometric data and uploading it to cloud:

First, I suggest you read this if you haven’t. I bet many people aren’t even aware this exists, but we have a super detailed page that outlines, in what I think is plain English, what data is collected today. It’s pretty thorough, and I think it demonstrates our commitment to being open about what data Kinect gets. It’s not like we hide this in some EULA somewhere.

Second: All those “biometric” features you saw demoed aren’t always turned on. They are features we make available.

Third: “biometric” data is pretty open-ended. For instance, we collect voice samples today if you opt-in (just like every phone does as well) to help improve the accuracy of the voice models. This, I suppose, could be considered “biometric” data going to the cloud.

According to the Kinect Privacy FAQ:

You can turn the Kinect sensor OFF by going to System Settings > Kinect Settings and choosing to turn the sensor OFF. The Kinect sensor hardware does not have a physical OFF switch. Alternatively you can always unplug the Kinect sensor from the console when it’s not in use. When using the Kinect Settings to turn the sensor OFF, all processors on the device that are used to stream audio, video, or depth data to the console are in fact turned OFF.

Kinect does listen for voice commands, but “users can turn on or turn off voice command collection at any time.” If you grant Microsoft permission, it will “record commands whether you are online or offline. If offline, your Xbox console will store the information until you connect to Xbox LIVE.” If you turn off voice collection, “the stored voice recordings that have not been sent to Xbox will be deleted without being sent.” There are two settings for voice controls and users can turn off both the Kinect microphone for chatting and the one for speech recognition. “Regardless of the Microsoft settings, gestures still work.”

If you are curious beyond what Meet Xbox One can show you, then Penello tweeted a “really good look at the dash and how it works.” When asked for a “live demo, not a doctored up version,” Penello said the video is “an excellent representation of the real UI. There are a lot of logistics and licensing issues doing a direct feed.”

Lastly, a little Microsoft trivia: Do you know why Xbox One is launching on Nov 22? Because it’s “a special day in Xbox history” since Xbox 360 launched eight years ago on Nov 22.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.