With the announcement of the Xbox One there's been a large number of reports and rumours circling about what this new device means for privacy. Microsoft has already stated that the Xbox One requires that you use Kinect while playing, and that one cannot be used without the other, which has led to some fair (but slightly hysterical) headlines about the Xbox One being a 'twisted nightmare' or fitting the description of a 'surveillance device'. But what legal responsibility does Microsoft bear for a device that could potentially spy on consumers and use that info for targeted marketing?
"I think most of these reports are premature," says Michael Fraser, a professor of law and Director of the Communication Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney.
"We don't really know enough about whether or not these devices can be disconnected. We don't have enough information.
"I don't think we have enough information on how it all works yet. It's not really clear."
Microsoft explained to us earlier that the new Xbox won't be spying on us, won't be watching constantly, and confirmed that the device could be switched off. The Xbox One can be switched off, that's almost too obvious to report, but in the midst of 'big brother' paranoia stories it's worth reinforcing.
"It is not always watching or always listening," said a Microsoft rep.
"Yes, you can turn the system completely off. This would use no power and turn everything off. We’ll share more details about how it all works later."
For some, the idea that the machine can be turned off isn't enough, and rightly so. The fact remains that the Xbox One requires Kinect to function. If you're using the machine, Kinect has access to your living room, and could potentially spy on users. That does raise issues.
But according to Michael Fraser, Microsoft would require explicit consent for any information it potentially collects.
"Microsoft wouldn't be allowed to collect any information without informed prior consent," he explained. "That would be in breach of the Australian Privacy Act."
Microsoft plans to add privacy settings, and is keen to assure consumers of its expertise in this area. Microsoft is claiming you will be informed, that you should have absolutely no worries about privacy issues.
"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," a rep told Kotaku US. "Microsoft has more than 10 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. We’ll share more details later."
'We'll share more details later'. It's a common refrain, and one Microsoft has used when discussing any of its controversial additions to the Xbox One console. Michael Fraser himself didn't want to commit to any overall judgement of Xbox One until Microsoft released more details on how it will regulate the Kinect, and how it will inform consumers. Microsoft's refusal to share any concrete details about Xbox One isn't doing the company any favours at this stage — and allows rumours to spread.
It's strange. Perhaps privacy questions, alongside other issues like used games, haven't quite been ironed out yet — perhaps Microsoft simply hasn't decided exactly what it intends to do with all this information, or how it intends to regulate it.
I think, more than anything, this is worrying. The silence, the lack of details the 'we'll share more detail later' gambit. Why don't they share the details now, reassure consumers and stop the headlines in their tracks?
Microsoft's reluctance to openly discuss this issue is potentially the most damaging aspect of this conversation. Hopefully these 'details' will be made available sooner rather than later.