Digital Cable, Set Top Boxes and Privacy

The steady expansion of digital cable services, which require the use of a set top box. These digital terminals or personal video records (PVRs) are made by companies such as Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta and are now installed in about 26 million US homes. The adoption of HD TV will likely increase demand even faster.

Unlike the “descramblers” of years gone by, today’s set top boxes allow two way communication with the cable companies in order to support services such as movies-on-demand. However, with the two-way communication capability comes potential privacy risks.

Depending on the programming, these boxes could conceivably be programmed to transmit viewing data to allow cable companies to compile databases of which subscribers watched particular shows. In Canada, federal privacy legislation would likely preclude a cable operator from attempting to sell such information to third parties. However, in the US, cable operators would likely be subject to less onerous restrictions.

In any case, the difference in current technology between cable operators and satellite TV providers may mean that satellite TV subscribers potentially enjoy a higher level of privacy since satellite terminals (except for TIVO) do not need to connect to their operators unless viewers wish to watch pay-per-view programs, and even then, the dialup bandwidth available likely means that only the pay-per-view information is transmitted.

I’m not suggesting that this kind of monitoring is going on, only that it can.