The cable television industry is on the threshold of becoming an intricate part of the way people transact their business. A revolution in communications will be brought about by the expanded use of new “interactive” cable television technology which enables users to transmit, as well as receive, information through their cable television systems. It is projected that by 1990 five million households, with 15 to 20 million viewers, will be using interactive cable television systems. The recent implementation, on an experimental basis, of interactive cable television in several cities across the country presents the question of how the privacy of the subscribers to the various services available through these systems will be protected. The existing technology in this field presents not only the possibility of amassing information on the day-to-day activities of individual subscribers but also the ability for actual in home audio and visual surveillance. This comment will examine some of the privacy issues which arise from the use of interactive cable television and discuss municipal, state and proposed federal legislation aimed at protecting the subscribers of these new cable services.
I. EXISTING TECHNOLOGY
Interactive cable television (sometimes referred to as “two-waytelevision”) encompasses a wide variety of in-home services. The Federal Trade Commission has identified over 60 services possible through this media.’ Many of the services are “active” with the
home viewer participating via a device called a “keypad”-a mechanism resembling a large pocket calculator hooked to the TV set by a small cable. The keypad enables the viewer to select channels and send messages to the centrally located computers which process or redirect the viewer input. Some of the services are “passive” and simply allow monitoring or control of a particular aspect of the household or business by a remote service entity. Services already in use include home banking, instant voting, storage of personal information, home shopping, instant-response study courses, automatic regulation of utility use, a selection from almost 1,000 data bases of specialized information, and security services which can monitor for fire, home intrusion and medical emergency. Individual sets can even be turned on and off from a central location. Cable company computers receive information on when, and if, you pay your bills, your bank account transactions, political and religious views, identity of housemates, consumer purchases, programs watched and information requested. Home security information will reveal if you are at home or not, what time you go to bed, and what room you sleep in. Interactive cable companies must maintain records of all subscriber transactions for billing purposes. The danger occurs when this information is used for purposes other than billing.