in The Cloud
on somebody else's server

Because I'm lazy and can't be arsed leafing through tables of features I get my broadband off BT. And they throw in a BT Vision box. Which is basically Freeview with a hard disc to record to and an internet connection. It's ok. Mostly it works. About once a month the fan gets noisy and it panics and falls on its face and you need to turn it off and on again. Or, if it's a proper panic attack, turn it off, hold down the reset button and turn it on again.

But every so often the box has a complete breakdown and no amount of off / on / off / on / reset makes it feel better. A while back my BT Vision box went a bit hysterical and broke. So they sent round an engineer with a new one.

Obviously I lost all my recorded programmes (even the on / off / reset achieves that aim). Probably no great loss; some Midsomer Murders, some Gardener's World, some Great British Railway Journeys and my daughter's carefully curated collection of M.I. Highs. But I also figured I'd lost all my instructions to record.

Last Thursday morning I had a bit of a panic because I thought the new series of Gardener's World wouldn't be recorded. So I clicked through several pages of the god awful EPG, found Gardener's World and found it was already set up to record.

Because, I assume, the box phones home and record instructions are stored "in the cloud" and the whole thing is re-synched periodically. Which made me ponder three things:

  1. What else is the box recording and phoning home? What I watch? What I record? What I record and watch? What I record and fail to watch?
  2. How is that data used and by whom? Which reminded me of this vintage article from Wired on Sky's plans to serve personalised adverts based on TV attention data and my oft quoted quote from Clive Humby (emphasis mine):

    If I knew your whole transaction profile - restaurants, travel, fashion - that could be immensely powerful. You'd need a consent-based model, but you'd understand every aspect of a person's life. The credit-card data tells you how they live generally, the supermarket data tells you their motivations, the media data tells you how to talk to them. If you have those three things, you're in marketing nirvana.

  3. Who owns that data and how else could it be used? If it's mine then why shouldn't I be able to port it out and offer it to Sky in the hope of a money off deal and a more reliable box? Why shouldn't I be able to port it into Programme List and get broadcast reminders and links to VOD services? Or take it to Amazon and get DVD recommendations. Or go the other way and take my Amazon data and get programme recommendations? There's a lot of personal data floating around but it's all locked into proprietary systems and outside my control.

I'm not, despite appearances, a privacy zealot. I don't think absolute privacy is possible or desirable. From supermarket loyalty cards to Oyster cards to Facebook every day we trade some privacy for some convenience. My problem is when the terms of trade are so obfuscated that it's not possible to weigh what we gain against what we lose. In the BT Vision case if I'd been offered the option of exporting my record instructions off the box I might well have clicked yes. (I'd have been even more tempted to click yes if my recordings were stored off the box but that would probably break 10,000 copyright agreements.) But I wasn't given the option and knowing that data is out there but outside my reach is just frustrating.

I don't think I'm alone in this. Some recent research by the NoTube project found that most people were uncomfortable about their online TV viewing being recorded when they hadn't consented and couldn't control what happens to the data.

There's been a long running debate about privacy vs "publicness" which mostly seems to miss the point. The point being informed consent. Those on the "publicness" side tend to say that organisations harvesting user data is a price worth paying for "free" access to "open" publishing tools. And ignore that the data being harvested disappears into proprietary systems where it's impossible for users to extricate it or correct it. The exact opposite of openness. It's bad for consumers because they get locked into a single system. And it's bad for competitiveness because new businesses can't hope to compete with established players who monopolise the interest graphs. Wherever you see customer relationship management or user relationship management it can almost always be read as "lock-in".

Most people are used to the idea that when they use the web (in the browser open, clicking links sense) their actions are being reported and recorded. The fact that we seem no closer to solving informed consent and data portability on the web doesn't bode well for when our white goods start phoning home.