Hawes Mechanical Television Archive by James T. Hawes, AA9DT
DTV Changeover FAQ, Part 7

More DTV Technology Questions

QUESTION. Do DTV decoder boxes contain cameras and microphones? Does the government really use decoder boxes to spy on us?

ANSWER. As far as I know, the answer to both questions is “no.” A YouTube spoof started this rumor. The YouTuber glued cellphone parts inside of a Magnavox® decoder box. Then he pretended to open the box and find the alleged camera and microphone.

Like most practical jokes, the sophomoric YouTube was funny, but only to the perpetrator. For the gullible, the butt of the joke, this type of humor is very cruel. For Magnavox, an honest company that makes quality products, this video could damage its reputation and profits. I'm not surprised that the video no longer appears on YouTube.

I hope that I've allayed your fears. But you really aren't out of the dark. Fact: The IRS, credit bureaus and various private marketers actually do track you. They just don't use decoder boxes to do the job. Fact: If you're paranoid about the possibility of someone watching you, you shouldn't be using the Web. Various Web services track everything you do online, especially online purchases. That includes every page search and every page you visit. If you upload data, even your name, from one to thousands of servers store this data indefinitely.

If you want to protect your privacy, you must take extreme measures...

  • Go offline for good.

  • Cancel your credit cards, debit cards and store courtesy cards. Also destroy and discard the cards.

  • Remove the tollway transponder from your car. This transponder contains an RFID chip that transmits your location.

  • Remove the oil company transponder in your wallet. This transponder contains an RFID chip that transmits your credit card number.

  • Turn off your radar detector. Local police carry and use radar-detector detectors.

  • Remember too, that superhet radar detectors, radios and TV sets all transmit from their local oscillators. Using the local oscillator signal, data miners can log what you listen to and watch.

  • Install a Faraday Cage around your computer room. Otherwise, by Van Eck Phreaking, a hacker can remotely read your computer data.

  • When you purchase items from stores, remove and discard the RFID tags. These tags can transmit data indefinitely. Some manufacturers might sew such tags into clothing. In the presence of a live reader, these tags disgorge their data.

  • Get rid of your cell phone. It can pinpoint your location in a cell. Agents can remotely switch on your phone, download data, or even turn on the microphone. Unless you remove the battery, some handsets never switch off.

  • Never answer spoof emails, phone calls or snail mail. (Examples: Queries from “Nigerian princesses.” Job offers by international firms who need your “help” in money-laundering projects. “Discount credit rates” on your cards. Third-party “extended warranties” for your car. Ponzi schemes such as “can't lose, high-earning” investments. “Free” vacations. Offers of “salvation” from communal cults.)

  • When you stop at a traffic light, smile. It might be taking your picture.

  • If a policeman pulls you over, comb your hair, clip on a tie and be polite. Many squad cars have automatic camcorders.

  • With all these precautions, you still can't turn off Google Earth. From there, anyone can punch up an aerial view of your home. Try it!

QUESTION. Could my TV watch me, as in Orwell's 1984?

ANSWER. Yes, actually your TV could do that. This situation is unlikely, though. A normal TV set doesn't have the necessary hardware to pick up images. Still, any TV can serve as a scanning light source. This scanner is part of the hardware that a snoop would need. The snoop could install the other part, an opto pickup, inside your set-top box. See... My TV watches me.

Remember that TVs can interlace. That is, they can scan every picture twice. Let's say that you're watching in a darkened room. Now what if every so often, the TV uses that second trace to scan you? You'll probably never notice that every other line of the picture goes gray for 1/60 second. In that instant, the gray trace bounces off your face. Optos in the set-top box record ambient light that reflects back toward the set. Then a wi-fi board sends the scan to a receiver on a phone pole outside your home. From there, a cable carries your image to a clandestine office downtown. The TV could send such pictures continuously, or for increased stealth, only occasionally.

Best of all for the snoops, you could disassemble the TV and you'd never find a camera. There's no camera in the set-top box, either. Of course, you could spot the optos. Yet they're nearly indistinguishable from the opto that reads the infrared beam from your remote control! The only difference might be the color of the opto package. Many infrared optos have a dark or even opaque-looking coating. The scanner pickup would be clear. Unfortunately for amateur spy smashers, some remote controls use clear optos that pick up both infrared and ambient visible light. Radio Shack sells that type.

By the way, this scanning technology isn't new. It's been a part of every TV since the very first one. Sorry to advance your paranoia. But those are the possibilities. If I can think of such applications, somebody far more resourceful is already applying them. All the technology is off-the-shelf. Yet I'm not sure why someone would use a TV that way. I'll leave details to the minds of beholders in tin-foil hats.

In the meantime, whenever you watch TV, keep those room lights on. Room lighting swamps out the scanning glow from your TV set. Unless you crawl right up in front of the set. In that case, say “cheese.”

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