This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Media Grok email newsletter. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.

TiVo Is Watching You

Mar 27 2001 12:00 AM PST

Your set-top box is phoning home every night, telling the company what you watched.

Perhaps in the current market downturn the media's enthusiasm for privacy stories is waning. The Privacy Foundation issued a major study on an Internet appliance that phones home every night to report details of its owners' actions, and the press responded with cursory coverage.

The Privacy Foundation spent four months studying the practices of TiVo (TIVO), the maker of high-end video recorders equipped with hard disks. Their report claims that TiVo's privacy policy, as described in the manual that comes with the appliance, is both misleading and out of date with the firm's real practices. After reading the manual a TiVo owner would not be aware that the device phones TiVo headquarters every night and reports in detail on what shows were watched and recorded; the log even includes every button-press on the device's remote control.

The Associated Press's D. Ian Hopper got a jump on the story, and many outlets used versions of the AP coverage, most abbreviated to only a few paragraphs. The Privacy Foundation issued its report on Monday, and at least one paper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, ran a substantial portion of Hopper's story on Sunday.

The New York Times featured four slim paragraphs from Reuters, which didn't quote anyone at either TiVo or the Privacy Foundation. Coverage elsewhere quoted TiVo chief privacy officer Matthew Zinn's spin on the report. Judging by the overall thinness of the press coverage, TiVo seems to have warded off any serious PR damage so far.

The San Jose Mercury News and USA Today both assigned reporters to the story, but neither turned up any new angles. Fox News ran 18 paragraphs of Hopper's AP story including this summary quote from David Burke, author of Spy TV: "When we have a television in our homes observing what we do and running little experiments on us, we're either going to get really mad and say that this is too much, or conversely, this will be the end of it. Once people have television in their homes and get used to the idea that they will be observed, the whole issue of privacy is gone."

Snooping on the Couch Potatoes
The Industry Standard

Video Recording Service Compiling Information on Viewers (AP)
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Privacy Group Raises Questions About TiVo
New York Times
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Privacy Foundation Criticizes TiVo Practices
San Jose Mercury News

Privacy Organization Hits Recorder Maker
USA Today

Report Shows How Video Recorders Watch Consumers (AP)
Fox News