Digital TV allows `spying' on viewers

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The Independent Online
RUPERT MURDOCH has acquired the ability to enter your living room and watch you watching television.

The launch of BSkyB digital satellite television will give the media mogul's company unprecedented power to access subscribers' televisions and record their viewing habits.

The technology is in place for Sky to find out whether vicars are watching naughty sex movies, if old ladies are obsessed by crime and violence or whether the man next door is more interested in soap operas or gardening programmes.

It is all possible because digital satellite will be interactive. The little black box that will go on top of your television set will have a two-way communications channel. During the day it could store information on viewers' programme preferences and at night Sky could ask it for that data, say digital television engineers.

The information is commercial gold-dust. Car manufacturers would, doubtless, pay to have lists of people interested in high-performance cars. Plant firms would love to know which households have a special interest in gardening. Under data protection laws, viewers would have to be told their names were being passed on - but not necessarily that the information had been gathered in the first place.

BSkyB is anxious to put subscribers' fears at rest - and stresses that just because the technology is there, it does not mean that the company will use it. "It is not the intention to record viewing habits," spokesman Chris Haines said yesterday.

The BSkyB set-top boxes, which will go on sale on 1 October, says the company, will not include the software to monitor viewers' programme choices. In practice, though, BSkyB can at any time beam new software into set- top boxes directly from its satellite.

Viewers who fear they are being "watched" by their television should note that there is a way of switching off Mr Murdoch. With each interactive set-top box, Sky wants to install a phone-line at the side of the television. This connection allows the two-way conversation between the box and Sky's headquarters. Unplug it and viewers will still receive all Sky's digital channels, they just won't be interactive.

The Independent Television Commission says it has set up meetings with other watchdogs, including telecoms regulator Oftel and the Office of Fair Trading, to discuss competition issues. Privacy is also a big concern.

The rival digital cable firm Cable and Wireless is also in the interactive business and will be building individual customer profiles based on viewers' activities on onscreen websites.