What are you watching?

[Edit: this turned out to pretty much be a red herring.]

Let’s say a lot of people follow this blog. A lot of them probably wouldn’t remember when cable TV was rolling out in the 70’s and one of the BIG DEALS in their marketing rhetoric was how they don’t know what we’re watching and the cable doesn’t send info about what we’re doing back to them. It was the first time it was possible, and privacy, apparently, was important to TV viewers.

Now lots more of what we do is recorded, analyzed, and shared. What I was wondering is, now that we’re all sick of cable (we are semi-cord-cutters in our house, and mostly watch streamed shows), what do our Internet-connected TV set-top devices know about what we watch?

We have a Roku on one of our TVs. Clearly it knows that I’m watching Netflix, or Amazon Instant Video, because I use the Roku interface to select those “channels.” And Netflix and Amazon have perfect data about what we watch on their channels, and when. Does Roku know that as well? The question was resistant to web searching.

So I checked Roku’s privacy policy and found an inscrutable bit (in an otherwise very readable PP). I wrote them about it:

Hi, I’m curious about something in your privacy policy. In general I find it very readable, so thank you. But there’s one part I’m not sure I understand. In Section I, Information Collection, you write

“Roku Devices regularly upload usage information to Roku as part of their use. The collected information includes the specific identifiers of streams played, duration played, various quality measures, error logs, software version numbers, and other usage statistics.”

It’s the “specific identifiers of streams played” that I don’t understand. Does “stream” in this case mean something like “Netflix” or “Amazon Instant Video”? Or does it mean the shows I watched on those channels? That is, does Roku collect information about what actual shows I watch, or only where I’m watching? Does Roku only know that I had Amazon running for an hour, or does it know that I watched Downton Abbey?



So they finally got back to me, a few days ago, after a little nagging. But the news is good: Roku only knows what channel you’re watching. So right now, provided you watch a mix of channels (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, etc.), nobody knows your whole pattern (but note: that’s still a lot worse than it used to be, when nobody even knew whether your TV was on or off).

It would be easy enough for them to figure out what show you’re watching. At worst they could just capture a short string of bits flying by and match them with known data. They would only do that with the agreement of the channel providers, however; and if they were going to negotiate that, they might as well just have the channel providers share data.

I think this is what the long delay in responding came down to, and the lack of clarity in their privacy policy: this is going to be a negotiation between the set-top box companies and the content companies, and they want to be able to change plans without changing their policy.

I might now nag them to commit to keeping their policy, and see what they say!

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