Your cable operator is spying on you and selling the data from your set-top box

As the fight over the FCC's Unlock the Box plan heats up, the cable and satellite TV companies have pulled out all the stops in a bid to force you to continue spending more than $200/year to rent an insecure, power-hungry, badly designed set-top box, rather than introducing competition by letting you buy your cable-box on the open market.

On the other side, public interest groups have filed comments rebutting the industry's FUD about copyright violations, and asking the FCC to protect security researchers who discover flaws in these sensor-equipped, networked boxes that stare into the living rooms of tens of millions of American families.

Public Knowledge, the Center for Digital Democracy and Consumer Watchdog filed complaints with the FTC and FCC, documenting ways in which the existing cable-box monopoly lets the industry illegally spy on their customers, secretly gathering sensitive information on their viewing habits and monetizing it.

The sums involved are huge, and, when combined with the annual fees for the boxes' rental, go a long way to explaining why the industry is fighting so hard to block this order.

The complaints specifically single out Comcast, AT&T and Cablevision as "among the most egregious" when it comes to using consumer data without adequate consent. The complaint filed with the FCC (pdf) for example, notes that companies like AT&T often pull data from both the wireless and wireline empires to create mammoth databases of user behavior and personal information for targeted ads, without making the scope of this collection and usage clear to consumers or obtaining full, legal consent: "AT&T’s TV Blueprint, for example, “gives advertisers working with AT&T the ability to reach people based on factors like device, operating system, whether or not they’re heavy data users or the status of their carrier contract,” using “sophisticated second-by-second set- top box data” and other information. AT&T pulls data “from millions of set-top boxes” and analyzes consumer viewing history and uses these data to target consumers based on their viewing profile. Companies like Cablevision leverage granular data and precise details of household viewing behavior, and combine it with third-party data covering other intimate details of consumers’ lives to analyze and target specific individuals with video advertising across a range of screens. In their own words, “this set-top box level targeting lets marketers target customers that fit particular trends, profiles, demographics and attributes, and they can also pair the Cablevision data with their own or third-party data."

Public Knowledge Defends Consumer Privacy in Set-top Box Data Complaint to FCC, FTC [Shiva Stella/Public Knowledge]

Consumer Groups Say AT&T, Comcast Violate Privacy Law By Hoovering Up Cable Box Data Without Full User Consent [Karl Bode/Techdirt]