Shhh! Your smart TV is eavesdropping on you

Smart TV spying on you
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Samsung’s Smart TV privacy policy is raising new concerns about eavesdropping, though it’s not the first example of unnerving behavior from our televisions.

Some Samsung TVs now include a microphone on the remote control for entering voice commands. As one Reddit user pointed out, Samsung’s privacy policy effectively warns users to watch what they say, as the TV ships off voice data to an unnamed third party—presumably for the purpose of translating the speech to text.

“Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition,” the policy states.

Samsung says it uses “industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption” to secure users’ personal information, and notes that users can disable voice commands or turn off Wi-Fi connectivity entirely. (See the bottom of this article for the full statement.) Still, that hasn’t stopped the inevitable comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984, suggesting that we’re well on the way to a dystopian future.

Why this matters: It’s worth noting that Samsung only sends voice data when you’re actually telling the TV to do so (for instance, by hitting the microphone button on the remote control), so the comparisons to Orwell’s omnipresent recording boxes are a bit overblown. Still, Samsung’s policy of shipping the data off to a third party with no guarantees of its privacy is unsettling, especially given the government’s interest in the connected home as a potential trove of personal data.

Can you trust your TV?

On a broader level, Samsung is contributing to the idea that smart TVs (and for that matter, all connected home devices) are not to be trusted.

Concerns over the safety of smart TVs date back to at least 2012, when hackers demonstrated the ability to take over televisions with built-in cameras and microphones. But more recently, the real disturbing behavior has come from TV makers themselves.

You should also read: 'Worried about spying smart TVs? Try a home theater PC.

In 2013, for instance, LG was caught uploading information on file names from USB and networked storage devices, even for users who had opted out of having their viewing information collected. LG eventually disabled the data transmission through a firmware update, but only after the U.K. government started asking questions. Its smart TVs also transmit your every word to offsite servers when listening for instructions.

Still, some manufacturers require users to share other kinds of information, such as viewing habits, in order to access any Internet-based features. Opt of out sharing that data with LG or Toshiba, for instance, and you won’t be able to watch Netflix.

In most cases, TV makers are just looking to squeeze out some more ad revenue while their hardware margins shrink. While Samsung’s snooping case seems a bit different, it’s not helping to restore trust in these supposedly smart televisions.

Update 2:00 P.M. EST: Samsung provided the following statement:

"Samsung takes consumer privacy very seriously. In all of our Smart TVs, any data gathering or their use is carried out with utmost transparency and we provide meaningful options for consumers to freely choose or to opt out of a service. We employ industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers’ personal information and prevent unauthorized collection or use.

Voice recognition, which allows the user to control the TV using voice commands, is a Samsung Smart TV feature, which can be activated or deactivated by the user. Should consumers enable the voice recognition capability, the voice data consists of TV commands, or search sentences, only. Users can easily recognize if the voice recognition feature is
activated because a microphone icon appears on the screen.

Samsung does not sell voice data to third parties. If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV. Samsung encourages consumers to contact the company directly with any  product concerns or questions at 0330 726 7864."

IDG News Service's Lucian Constantin provided additional reporting for this article.

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