Set Top Boxes: The Other Privacy Debate

A government official issues a directive to the technology industry. Corporate spokespersons protest. And the general public leaps into a privacy debate.

The highest profile story that reflects this sequence of events, of course, involves Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino assassins. But there’s another privacy story, now brewing under a lower profile, that might ultimately wield a greater impact on the future day-to-day lives of most Americans.

It’s the cable television set-top box controversy. Most of us don’t even think about the little computerized boxes that sit on our television sets, and that convert the transmission signals into images and sound.

At the moment, virtually all Americans obtain those little boxes from the same technology companies that transmit the cable signals. But as a result of a recent Federal Communications Commission directive, that is likely to change.

Why? Because the directive opens up the set-top box market to competition. Very soon, the cable television companies will be required to allow their customers to use Apple TVs, Google Android TVs, and other third party devices to perform that conversion task. And, under these circumstances, such competition might generate undesirable consequences.

Huh? Isn’t competition a good thing? Well, yes, it is. But given that companies like Apple and Google already manage so much of our private information, access to our television viewing habits would massively magnify existing concerns about the concentration of our personal information in the hands of these firms.

Of course, the San Bernardino controversy is extremely important too. So, the next time you hear about the great privacy debate in regards to that terrible event, by all means, please feel free to deliberate about its ramifications.

But, at the same time, please don’t overlook the set-top box privacy discussion. It’s the “other” great policy debate, and it might well determine whether the firms that already know everything we do on our phones and computers also end up knowing everything we watch on television.