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Digital Citizens Alliance To FCC: Set-Top Box Proposal Lacks Privacy And Cybersecurity Protections

Published Friday, April 22, 2016

FCC Proposal Fails to Protect Against Collecting Information on Children's Viewing Habits, Threats from Hackers and Malware Infections

 WASHINGTON, April 22, 2016 - Adopting the Federal Communications Commission's set-top box plan as proposed threatens consumers' privacy and data security, according to Digital Citizens Alliance, a leading voice for online safety.

"Consumers want more competition and innovation in cable boxes, but not if it means sacrificing their families' privacy and security," Tom Galvin, Executive Director of Digital Citizens Alliance said. "The FCC needs to do much more to protect consumers against hackers, malware and invasive ads than it has sketched out so far."

In comments filed today with the FCC, Digital Citizens Alliance explained the security and privacy flaws in the proposed set-top box rules. It also reported the results of polls it commissioned from Vrge Analytics earlier this month showing that 72% of consumers oppose allowing their personal browsing and search histories to be used to target television advertising to the family television.

Digital Citizens Alliance identified three primary concerns with the FCC’s proposals.

Failure to Protect Navigation Devices from Hackers. The FCC does not propose to adopt sufficient measures to protect navigation device hardware or software from unauthorized access obtained through hacking or device malfunction.

Navigation devices have access to sensitive personal information about consumers’ preferred television programs, consumption patterns and recent searches. When connected to a smart television or other advanced device, navigation devices could be used to record and transmit audio, video, or images – literally becoming “eyes” and “ears” in consumers’ living rooms.

The consequences of this type of unauthorized access can prove devastating. As the Digital Citizens Alliance reported in its 2015 study “Selling Slaving,” hackers can hijack and activate cameras on vulnerable electronics to videotape consumers without their knowledge. Cassidy Wolf, a former Miss Teen USA, experienced this exploitation first hand. Her computer was “slaved” by a hacker who used it to take pictures of her changing clothes and to listen to her conversations. The hacker then used this data to attempt to extort Cassidy into providing even more material – for instance, videos of her doing what he asked and “better quality” photos.

New and Invasive Advertisements into Consumers’ Living Rooms. The FCC’s proposals will upset consumers’ settled expectations about which of their family’s media consumption habits are private and which are public.

To take just one example, the FCC’s proposals would likely allow set-top box vendors to use consumer Internet searches and browsing histories to inform the types of advertising that appears during television shows. Imagine, for instance, if a married couple started to receive television advertisements divorce attorneys or online dating websites based on one of the spouse’s Internet browsing histories. Or if a child was exposed to television advertisements about divorce, terminal illness, or another sensitive topic that one of her parents may have recently researched.

As found in the polling commissioned by Digital Citizens Alliance, computers and smartphones are personal devices that consumers frequently use to search for things they may not want others to see. But televisions offer communal experiences that consumers share with friends and family – often in their living rooms, dens, kitchens, or other gathering spots.

Increased Consumer Exposure to Malware from Content Theft Websites. The FCC’s proposals could make it easier for hackers and malware purveyors to trick consumers into turning over sensitive financial and personal information.

Piracy is often a doorway to harmful malware that can lead to identity theft, financial loss, and computers being taken over by hackers. One out of every three piracy sites reportedly contain malware, and merely visiting this type of site can place users’ devices at risk.

“The FCC should fully consider the privacy and cybersecurity risks that its proposals pose to consumers,” Tom Galvin, Executive Director of the Digital Citizens Alliance said. “The FCC either needs to make necessary and fundamental changes, or put the proposal on hold until it can assure consumers that their privacy is not at risk and they and their families won’t be in greater danger from hackers, malware and invasive ads.”


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