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Spy in the living room: can you trust the Xbox Kinect?

British spies tapped into millions of Yahoo webcam chats

A friend of mine whose family has an Xbox One recently told me her son detached the Kinect camera almost as soon as they got the new console for Christmas. The Kinect’s camera and microphone, which are central to controlling the Xbox One by voice and gesture commands, creeped him out.

That paranoia might not be so farfetched, at least in general terms. There’s no absolutely no evidence that the Kinect on your Xbox is taking pictures of you and sending them to the NSA, but its location in living rooms, rec rooms and even bedrooms make it a fine surveillance device. And the spooks have noticed.

News surfaced last week that a British intelligence agency had tapped into Yahoo’s webcam chat service and retrieved still images and information from millions of chats around the globe between 2008 and 2010. Whether the effort caught any terrorists was not revealed, according to The Guardian which broke the story, but it did catch an awful lot of pictures of naked people in front of their PCs, which tells you more about webcam chats than you want to know.

Yahoo told The Guardian it knew nothing about the intelligence operation and condemned it as a violation of its service. Yahoo’s track record on opposing government surveillance apparently suggests its reaction is sincere, even if it has been slower than competitors like Google in protecting its services against spying.

The Yahoo revelation had me thinking about my friend’s family and their wariness about the Kinect. According to The Guardian, that same British snooping program considered the original version of the Kinect, then available for the Xbox 360, as another device to snoop with. Nothing in the story suggests that notion was followed up on or succeeded.

I contacted Microsoft Canada for comment and its PR folks replied with much the same answer: they were unaware of such a spying program and strongly opposed any such action by government. Microsoft has joined other tech companies in the U.S. in calling for strict controls on government surveillance through the Internet.

I’m prepared to call Microsoft equally sincere in its reply, if only because allowing a consumer device to be part of a widespread spying program would be a public relations nightmare that would destroy the Xbox as a product. Microsoft also takes pains to point out privacy restrictions with Xbox, telling The Verge last year that it does not collect personal information about users, including images, and send it to corporate servers via Kinect.

The Verge did point out, however, that Skype, owned by Microsoft, long claimed its video and audio chat communications were protected against prying eyes, especially from the government. It turns out Skype might have been tapped by spies after all, and according to The Verge Microsoft doesn’t deny it would allow government access to Skype based on individual requests.

But as the Yahoo intercepts reveal, spies don’t need Kinect to spy on you. The laptop you already own will do nicely thanks to their built-in cameras and microphones. Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson wrote a disturbing piece last year revealing how hackers, including unsophisticated teenage boys who purchase the right software, routinely infect and take over the laptops of thousands of innocent victims so they can watch them through their laptop cameras.

Referring to their unknowing targets as “slaves,” they take pictures and record videos of their victims and post them and boast about them in online forums. As you can guess, young women are a key target demographic.

I’m not a young woman, but after reading Anderson’s story I put a piece of duct tape over my laptop camera. I confess it’s still there.

The surveillance capabilities for both government spies and private hackers of the gadgets we invite into our lives again shows the dilemma that technology presents us. The Kinect is an excellent device: the ability to control the Xbox One through voice commands, including turning on your TV and sound system, is very cool. The same goes for Skype, Yahoo chats and the cameras on our laptops. They allow us unprecedented, instant communication with colleagues, friends and loved ones.

These are liberating tools that allow for surprisingly human contact (as the Yahoo story shows), and we are better off for them.

But be aware. Communications technology is like a window in your house. It lets the sun in. It also lets people passing by look inside your home.

Go surf the Net. Play with Kinect. Chat on Yahoo. No one is watching you. Yet.