A Microsoft executive has confirmed that, contrary to earlier reports from the company, the upcoming Xbox One console will not require the Kinect sensor to be activated at all times after all. This change comes after a widespread backlash from gamers concerned about the privacy implications of an always-on camera pointed from the television back at the couch.
Microsoft's original announcement of the Kinect requirement came at an awkward time, as its privacy practices have been receiving a lot of attention over the past few months. The company was in the midst of an advertising campaign that used the tagline "Your privacy is our priority" when the Guardian published information connecting Microsoft and its product Skype with the NSA's PRISM program. Just days later, Bloomberg published a report that the company provides U.S. intelligence agencies like the NSA with advance information about its products' security vulnerabilities, which could in theory be used to get backdoor access to a person's computer.
Against that backdrop, users expressed concerns that an always-on Kinect camera could be co-opted for surveillance. Some referred to the product as "the future of PRISM." Two Congressmembers even introduced a bill called the "We Are Watching You Act" aimed at Kinect and similar devices.
Microsoft had previously responded to those concerns in June with more information about the privacy protections built in to Kinect, but this week's interview makes it clear they have made additional changes, such that the device could be de-activated all together.
Some of the privacy issues with Kinect are real and substantial, so it is encouraging to see Microsoft respond to feedback. Despite the timing of the NSA revelations, the company has endeavored to compete publicly on its privacy practices. It also joined EFF and other tech companies in calling on the U.S. government to lift unnecessary restrictions on what sorts of government data requests they can publicly report.
If we hope to see more companies push back on NSA surveillance of their users, we must first recognize where that's happening. Removing the requirement for an always-on Kinect may be a minor change, but a step in the right direction.
This change isn't the first time Microsoft has responded to Xbox One criticisms with a real policy adjustment. Earlier this summer, Microsoft made a separate announcement in response to concerns about its plans for an expansive built-in DRM scheme that would have required a constant Internet connection—even to play offline—and restricted the way users could sell and trade games. After coming under heavy criticism from its competitor Sony and the gaming community at large, it lifted many of those restrictions completely.