Xbox 1 E3: Will the Xbox One Be Another Nail in the Coffin For Privacy?

Parents and gamers may want to think twice before rushing to purchase Microsoft’s latest greatest toy. At the kickoff of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) earlier this week, Microsoft announced the November 2013 release date of the highly anticipated and controversial Xbox One. The game console will provide an opportunity for discourse on privacy boundaries between consumer and producer, citizen and state.

Revealed last month, the sleek Xbox One features voice command, cloud integration, and powerful operating systems. A true feat of technological achievement, the bundled Kinect motion-detector is also the cause of many privacy concerns for potential buyers. The censor that can detect thumb orientations, facial expressions, and heartbeats, will be on standby unless turned off. The Xbox itself will always be online.

The system, as Microsoft explains in its online privacy statement, “collects and uses your personal information to operate and improve its sites and services … performing research and analysis aimed at improving our products, services and technologies; and displaying content and advertising that are customized to your interests and preferences."

Amidst the NSA’s recent Verizon and PRISM metadata collection scandals (in which Microsoft was one of the targeted companies), the announcement of the Microsoft product comes at a time when many have grown skeptical, if not outraged, over the government’s broad scope of powers wielded in the name of national security. From Glenn Beck to Michael Moore, people across the political spectrum are questioning whether the trade-off between security and liberty — a trade-off condemned by both Benjamin Franklin and Senator Barack Obama but encouraged by President Barack Obama — really exists. Even law-abiders have reasons for concern.

People are also now deciding what information they should be comfortable with handing over to companies. Although the companies claim to be vigorous defenders of customer privacy and did not voluntarily submit or provide the government access to customer information, the vulnerability of that information was exposed. So even if people take public relations moves like Microsoft’s “Your Privacy is Our Priority” commercial at face value, there is still a risk that government, hackers, or other outside agencies could capture their information.

In the digital age, a license to personal information must be granted with the understanding that the license is not time-transient. The information will persist online or in one of the many worldwide data centers. Just as power granted to a benevolent government may be distorted and abused by the next administration, power granted to companies today may lead to abuses in the future. Users may therefore decide to exercise a little more caution and, indeed, reluctance when accepting privacy terms and conditions, as inconvenient as they find reading them to be.

Markets could work to clarify some of these privacy issues. Consumers and experts in the gaming industry have already expressed unease over the Xbox One’s surveillance capacity. Meanwhile, the Xbox’s more affordable and less intrusive rival, the Sony PlayStation 4, has also been generating buzz. Consumers will express their preferences when both products hit the marketplace this fall.

Technological innovation has opened up a whole new frontier of information gathering, distributing, and manipulating. In some cases, technology has advanced quicker than the ideas for its applications and many companies are still scratching their heads wondering about the untapped potential of mounds of collected big data.

All that said, advances in technology have historically been positive for more democratic societies. Luxuries of the past, such as access to clean water, leisure time, and air travel, were reserved for the ruling class and privileged elite but are now considered intrinsic parts of our daily lives. Social media sites are widely credited for giving rise to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.

The path of technology is largely indeterminable, of course, and information-sharing between entities is routinely used to better our lives. However, the public can still have an intelligent debate about principles. What right to privacy do we have as free citizens seeking to live in a safe country? What information should we entrust government and private companies with? And should gamers really be forced to choose between quality entertainment and privacy?