Privacy concerns over Digital TV PDF Print E-mail
Information sent back through set-top boxes could possibly be hacked.

Millions of South Africans could be at risk of having their personal information hacked and misused, as SA moves from analogue television to a digital signal, warn industry experts.

The country is preparing for the global switchover to digital broadcasting in 2015. However, to watch the new signal, every one of the 10 million households that owns a television will need a decoder.

These decoders, or set-top boxes, not only have the ability to receive signal, but also to send information through a return path. Government`s plan is for the boxes to be interactive, and allow citizens to fill in forms from their boxes, although it is unclear what types of forms this will include.

The late minister of communications, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, previously said the return path feature “enables the full and interactive provision of e-government services, such as accessing, filling in and sending back government forms”. This is according to the Broadcasting Digital Migration Policy, which was released towards the end of 2008.

The Digital Dzonga Council, which is overseeing the move, says any information sent or received by the box will be as secure as any other form of Internet-based communication.

However, industry commentators say not enough is being done to ensure citizens` personal information remains private.

While the boxes were due to hit the market soon in preparation for the switchover at the end of next year, the move to digital has been delayed to an uncertain future date, because industry is not ready.

Eye spy

Frank Rizzo, managing partner of IT advisory at KPMG, says the information being sent out through the boxes is at risk of being accessed by parties who should not have the data.

He explains that people`s personal data could be intercepted, and this could lead to identity theft if citizens fill in details such as their identity number and address. “If there is a feedback loop that allows monitoring, there is a privacy concern... It needs to be controlled so that individual privacy rights are protected.”

In addition, if information is being monitored by broadcasters, it could be used to gather marketing information that could define people into different classes, which would allow for targeted advertising.

Information must be stored on an anonymous basis, Rizzo says. “It`s a question of: what is that information being used for?”

Rizzo previously said the Protection of Personal Information Bill, which is making its way through the legislative process, places a huge onus on companies and government to protect data. He says data must be securely stored, and cannot be given out to anyone without permission.

An industry expert, closely involved with the broadcasting sector, who did not want to be named, has raised concerns that the return path could lead to a breach of information, such as identity numbers and physical addresses. He explains that the return path`s capability has not been adequately explained by government, and is “open to all forms of abuse”.

The expert says that, because information will be sent back to the government, the path is susceptible to hacking. “If, for example, you are going to be doing your tax returns through a set-top box, who is to say that someone can`t hack into the return path?”

He says government needs to explain the security controls around the boxes, and ensure any information captured in a database is protected.

Same principles

Anton Lan, business development director at Altech UEC and a member of the Digital Dzonga Council, says information sent and received by set-top boxes is at risk of being hacked and misused, but so can data on any other form of technology. The Dzonga, which consists of industry representatives, is overseeing the switchover.

Lan says the same rules that apply to securing cellphones and general Internet access will apply to set-top boxes. “The boxes have no more or less privacy than is afforded to a cellphone user.”

In addition, he says, some citizens may appreciate the ability to share information. “It`s not always a necessary evil.” Lan explains that the boxes will have a built-in USB port, which will allow them to be connected to the Internet.

The Department of Communications, the overarching department responsible for migration, has not clarified what security measures will be built into the decoders, or whether it is aware of concerns that information could be hacked.

Nowhere to run

Steven Ambrose, MD of World Wide Worx Strategy, says: “We are moving into a world where your entire activity, everything you do, is being monitored.” He says that any information sent out over the Internet is at risk of being intercepted.

Ambrose adds that tracking viewership is a standard feature of television viewing. He explains that MultiChoice, for example, has a return path capability through the satellite link, which allows upgrades to be done to software. It also allows viewership to be tracked. In the US, he adds, everything people do is being monitored. “Privacy is no longer an option.”

However, Ambrose says the return path capability of set-top boxes and data collection are only likely to become a reality within the next five to 10 years. He explains that the concept would first require government to have a singular view of citizens, and the boxes would also require some sort of technology that would allow information to be sent back.

Information from set-top boxes is already being used to research viewing habits. US-based TNS Media Research has been tracking information from set-top boxes for about seven years. “We love the challenge that set-top box data offers and the opportunities it presents,” the company says on its Web site.

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