In its hour-long Xbox One presentation, Microsoft blazed through announcements for its new next-generation console, including one ostensibly important feature that may raise some eyebrows: the new Xbox will always be listening to you, even when it's turned off.
The reason for always-on listening mode is simple; Microsoft wants the new Xbox to respond quickly and naturally to you, whenever you need it. To fulfill that goal, the company will ship the new Kinect — its motion-sensing and listening peripheral — with every Xbox One. The new console uses the new Kinect for just about everything: switching between games, movies, web browsing, and live television, all of which can be done with voice commands. (In fact, the new console needs the Kinect to operate at all — it's not an optional add-on like with the Xbox 360.) Even when the console's turned off, users can simply say "Xbox On" to power up — which means the new Kinect will be listening to you in your living room at all times.
I think it's creepy that you can say "Xbox on" and it will turn on. It means it's always listening to you.— Jack Lloyd (@RedDeadLloyd) May 21, 2013
Kinect on the Xbox One is always listening/watching and has a constant connection to the Internet. 1984 anyone?— James Philippon (@jamesphilippon) May 21, 2013
In fact, the new camera and microphone system is so sensitive to your presence, that Microsoft says the new Kinect can even read your heartbeat while you're exercising, and recognize and process audio that's personalized to specific individuals. "This is rocket science level stuff," Xbox's Marc Whitten said during today's reveal.
Microsoft claims the new Kinect is so sensitive that it can read your heartbeat and recognize individual voices
Of course, that's not necessarily a gloom-and-doom situation, and listening doesn't mean recording. Still, compared to privacy concerns over a device like Google Glass, which doesn't actively listen to its surroundings at all times, the new Xbox could pose greater privacy implications — especially if the system, which many users will connect to the internet, is compromised remotely by a malicious actor. "If I'm recording you, I have to stare at you — as a human being," Google Glass engineer Charles Mendis told The Verge when asked about Glass' privacy concerns. "And when someone is staring at you, you have to notice." But will you notice a fixed camera in your living room that's always listening?
This isn't the first time Kinect has faced privacy concerns
This isn't the first time Microsoft has dealt with privacy issues related to Kinect. When the first iteration of Kinect headed to the market in 2010, Microsoft's Dennis Durken suggested to investors that the peripheral might pass data to advertisers about how you look, play, and speak. "We can cater what content gets presented to you based on who you are," he said, sparking privacy concerns. (Microsoft later denied that the Kinect would use information for targeted advertising.) But even then, the first Kinect was only enabled in specific situations, and didn't have an always-on listening mode.
Microsoft provided few additional details on how the new Kinect will work, but the company did mention that the system will run in an extremely low-power state for listening mode, meaning that the device's operating system and certain hardware features could be disabled in that state.
We've asked Microsoft to clarify the technical specifics of how the system operates in listening mode, and if the company has considered any safeguards against potential privacy threats.
Update: A Microsoft spokesperson responded to our inquiry with the following statement.
The new Kinect is listening for a specific cue, like ‘Xbox on.’ We know our customers want and expect strong privacy protections to be built into our products, devices and services, and for companies to be responsible stewards of their data. Microsoft has more than ten years of experience making privacy a top priority. Kinect for Xbox 360 was designed and built with strong privacy protections in place and the new Kinect will continue this commitment.
Update 2: Microsoft CVP Phil Harrison told Eurogamer that the company has no plans to spy on you:
We aren't using Kinect to snoop on anybody at all. We listen for the word 'Xbox on' and then switch on the machine, but we don't transmit personal data in any way, shape or form that could be personally identifiable to you, unless you explicitly opt into that.