New book, lawmaker expose Big Brother
technology in the living room

Interactive TV Spies on Viewers

Ground-breaking legislation in California is fighting Microsoft and AOL to stop them creating the machine George Orwell foresaw - the TV set that watches you.

At the same time, a new book titled Spy TV exposes the methods by which digital interactive television will observe and experiment of viewers. It describes how neural network software will be used to create "psychographic profiles" and then "modify the behavior" of individuals.

This year broadcasters will celebrate interactive TV in public, using words like "convenience" and "empowerment". AOL TV is rolling out with the TiVo personal video recorder (PVR), that helps viewers find and save programs they might like. Microsoft is launching its own PVR called Ultimate TV, claiming "It puts you in control!". But while you may be sold on home shopping and chat, broadcasters have been selling advertisers their new power to monitor everything you do with your remote.

At industry conferences on interactive TV, Microsoft has been handing out specifications of its new platform. Their Microsoft TV Server, for instance, enables "optimizes revenue opportunities by providing rich personalization and targeting of content and ads to consumers based on their television viewing and Web surfing histories and preferences."

Matthew Timms, of Two Way TV in London, describes this surveillance in the home in plain English:

"..Somehow they feel they're sitting there - it's just them and the television - even though the reality is it's got a wire leading straight back to somebody's computer."

Now in bookstores, Spy TV is the backbone of an effort by White Dot, the anti-television campaign, to educate the public about this invasive technology. Finally his paying customers will get to hear Phil Swain of Cable and Wireless describe the huge amounts of data he will gather:

"Changing channels, selecting certain programs, viewing habits, browsing through interactive sites, purchasing habits, all that kind of stuff we can track. Every click, we can track. We will be recording that information."

In another recent development, Motorola Broadband, ACTV and OpenTV have announced investment in a subsidy called SpotOn, designed to create profiles of over 7 million viewers, without their knowledge. ACTV looks forward to delivering commercials based on "the specific profile of an individual household, which is generated by ACTV's software within the digital set-top in the home."

SpotOn's head of Sales in Dever, Bob Evans is proud of what he sells advertisers:

"That (set-top) box can hold 64,000 bits of information about you!"

Your TV set will know you intimately. Another intereactive TV company, NDS, is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International. Here they describe a product called XTV that manages the data your television will capture:

"Viewers can be segmented by a host of new demographics, psychographics and qualitative preferences, based on actual viewing behavior, while advertisers can create low cost messages tailored to these new niche markets."

Both SpotOn and XTV will be supported on the set-top boxes used by Liberate (the operating system of AOLTV) and Microsoft TV (the operating system of Ultimate TV)

Every move you make, for half the time you're not sleeping or working, will go into a file with your name on it. That's many times more data than even internet marketers like DoubleClick could dream of. Who gets use of that file? Large companies, government.. the highest bidder. What is it used for? Here's how one consultant put it:

"What we're all trying to do is change or reinforce existing behavior."

Control. That's the buzzword being used to sell interactive television. But who is getting that control? For a year and a half David Burke of the anti-television campaign White Dot, has been talking to broadcasters, marketers, advertisers and IT consultants about their plans for this machine.

What really excites them is the way interactive TV creates experimental conditions in the home. Your TV will be able to show you something, monitor how you respond, and then show you something else based on what you did. It's a cycle of stimulus, measurement and response that will allow your TV set to learn about you, adapt to you and work on you over time. Until it has you doing what it wants.

Your behavior is the video game these men are playing, and they talk about their viewers as if they were lab rats. Here a database analyst working with one of the interactive broadcasters talks the new language of home entertainment:

"You have to create some control group testing, in effect throw people some placebos. So if we're trying to increase their spend, or increase their usage or increase their customer satisfaction scores, we'll take one group and split it down the middle and expose it to two separate batches of data presentation."

Whoever controls your interactive TV will be able to spend years of your life just trying different combinations of programming until they find out what makes you do things. And increasingly, that controller will not be human. It will be a computer running artificial intelligence software, capable of learning and adapting. "The ultimate goal," says one consultant, "is to crack human personality in real time."

And when that goal is reached, even if they just come close, how easy will it be to sell each viewer a bottle of shampoo? A government policy? A new form of government? "There is no limit to this technology," says one excited broadcaster, "The limit is only as far as the mind can imagine!"

David Burke, a computer programmer himself, agrees. That's how he wrote most of the book:

"Every time I thought of some new way interactive TV could work," he says, "to control viewer behavior, I called up the companies involved and found they were already working on it. The unbelievable thing is: we are actually paying them to do this to us!"

Privacy International awarded Spy TV a "Winston" at its 1999 Big Brother Awards and now joins White Dot, Junkbusters, and the Center for Media Education in calling for a guarantee that viewers can "opt in" instead of having to "opt out".

It is just such an approach to personal privacy that California State Senator Debra Bowen is seeking to make into law. California already protects people from being tape recorded or filmed in their homes without their expressed permission. Her bill (SB 1599) simply extended that common sense approach to people's televisions. But lobbyists from AOL and Microsoft managed to kill it last year. Now, as the Senate comes back into session, Bowen is gathering votes to bring it back (SB1090).

We haven't been told the truth about interactive television.

This "service" is destroying a concept of privacy in the home that dates back 600 years. Spy TV has been written to call off this practical joke. Ask yourself: Who is this particular "digital revolution" overthrowing? Make sure it's not you.

The Facts                 A list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) is available here.
The Book Order a copy of Spy TV from,,, BOL, or

Contact Us

You can email us at

This boycott is organised by White Dot, the anti-television campaign, and Privacy International, a network of privacy experts and human rights organizations.

White Dot
PO Box 577257
Chicago, IL 60657
Attn: Spy TV

White Dot
PO Box 2116
Hove, E Sussex
England BN3 3LR
Attn: Spy TV
Privacy International
Washington Office
666 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Suite 301
Washington, DC 20003 USA

Although White Dot encourages people to throw their TV sets out the window, we welcome the involvement of people who wish to enjoy TV and privacy at the same time. And it goes without saying that any information you send will be used only to return information about this campaign.

For the latest news, visit the boycott's web site:

The following sites also contain information about interactive television:

White Dot

Privacy International Center for Media Education

Action: Tell the Truth

Broadcasters are spending millions of dollars to promote and lobby for the interests of interactive television. In minutes, a large company can mobilise its workforce to email and petition legislators, creating their own "astroturf" grass roots activism.

Without millions of dollars to spend, this boycott and any calls for privacy legislation will require ordinary people to do some promoting on their own. Please help us spread the truth about interactive television.

  • Tell friends and relatives about interactive TV and this boycott
  • Put a line like this one in the signature block of your emails and usenet postings:

Interactive TV spies on viewers. Join the boycott:

  • Put copies of our banner ad on your website, using this line:

<a href="http://"><img border=0 src="http://"></a>

Action: Self-Regulation is not Enough

Interactive television providers seem to be hoping that no one will think to ask questions about privacy. And many people do not because they assume the law already protects them. But they are mistaken.

Britain, for instance, has no privacy law - only a Data Protection Act. It requires the broadcasters to register what information they are collecting and who is allowed access to it. The Act requires broadcasters to show viewers what is held. But it doesn't stop them collecting anything they want. It doesn't stop them using data to manipulate viewers for unnamed clients, and it doesn't require that the data shown to viewers is translated into a form they can understand. If the data is nothing but computer codes, viewers may be left scratching their heads.

As Caspar Bowden of the Foundation for Information Policy Resarch says, "In Europe, Data Protection principles no longer cut it. We don't just need informed consent, we need the right to not be surveilled - whether or not this is part of a freely offered commercial service."

Meanwhile, the United States, unlike countries all over the world, does not even have a Data Protection Act. In the land of the free, anyone can collect any kind of information about you and not even tell you what they're doing.

Privacy is never about information, it's about power - "the right to be left alone". Take that power back! Help us make privacy the next home electronics "must have".

  • Write to your representatives in government demanding effective privacy legislation and regulation of interactive TV.
  • Write to the broadcasting and data protection regulators in your country, demanding that they put the viewers' right to privacy before the financial gain of the broadcast industry.
  • If you believe that a contract you signed did not adequately warn you of the surveillance to which you would be exposed, demand that the regulator help you get compensation.
Write to these people in Britain:

Office of the Data Protection Registrar
Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF
01625 545745 (This website provides a useful list of every data protection office in the world -

Office of Telecommunications (OFTEL)
Consumer Representation Section
50 Ludgate Hill
0171 634 8888

Department of Trade and Industry
Enquiry Unit
1 Victoria Street
London SW1H 0ET
020 7215 5000

Independent Television Commission
33 Foley Street
London W1P 7LB
0171 255 3000

Write to these people in the US:

National Telecommunications and
Information Administration

Herbert C. Hoover Building
U.S. Department of Commerce / NTIA
14O1 Constitution Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20230
(202) 482-1840

Federal Trade Commission
Washington, D.C. 20580
(877) 382-4357

Federal Communications Commission\
445 12th St. SW
Washington DC 20554
(202) 418-0190

Action:     Be an Early Rejector!

The makers of interactive television are keen to attract "Early Adopters" - people who like new technology and will create momentum behind their product. Instead of buying, we invite you join our boycott of interactive TV and help us tell the truth about it. Help us create an informed debate about this technology while people are still weighing up the alternatives.

  • If you have interactive television, get rid of it. Write a letter to your provider explaining why.
  • Write to other interactive TV providers in your area, explaining that you are will not sign up unless they provide you privacy as the default.
  • Talk to people in the communications chain with television providers. For example, visit a department store that sells digital televisions and say you want one that does not offer interactivity, because you have heard they are designed to monitor and manipulate viewers. Make sure to speak with the manager responsible for buying decisions.
  • Write to companies that advertise or offer services on interactive television. Express your disappointment that they have chosen to take part in a business that puts their profit over your civil liberty.
  • When writing to companies, it is worthwhile sending two copies: one to the managing director and one to the customer services department.
Frequently Asked Questions
For Information:
Spy TV -
edited by David Burke
160 pgs
ISBN: 1 899866 25 6
5.00 UK $9.95 USA
Slab-O-Concrete Press
Tel: +44 [0]1273 770299

White Dot in USA
PO Box 577257
Chicago, IL 60657-7257
White Dot in Britain
PO Box 2116
Hove, E Sussex BN3 3LR
Privacy International
Center for Media Education
State Senator Debra Bowen
Her website
Debra Bowen
State Capitol
Room 4040
CA 95814
(916) 445-5953