Is your TV set REALLY listening in on you?

18 Feb 2016

Add this to the Internet of Creepy Things: television sets that listen in on your conversations, record everything you say and send it to a third party.

Paranoid, you say? Just how closely did you read the privacy policy for that Samsung Internet-connected SmartTV? Yes it has a lovely display and responds to voice commands, but according to The Daily Beast, a single sentence in the policy reads: "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 the use of Voice Recognition."

Who's this unnamed third party, and who determines what constitutes "personal or other sensitive information"?

Inspired tweet
Samsung's creepy phrase inspired a tweet by Parker Higgins from the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation). Higgins pasted the highlighted sentence next to a section of George Orwell's novel "1984" which describes telescreens that spied on citizens for "Big Brother."

The tweet's well worth a look, as Orwell's 1949 novel seems prescient here. Data privacy is under erosion, and as the BBC reports: "Samsung is not the first maker of a smart, net-connected TV to run into problems with the data the set collects. In late 2013, a UK IT consultant found his LG TV was gathering information about his viewing habits."

What can we do?
The media can help. The BBC article says: "Publicity about the issue led LG to create a software update which ensured data collection was turned off for those who did not want to share information." Samsung issued a statement after the Daily Beast article affirming that they take "consumer privacy very seriously" (which is beginning to sound like a stock phrase nowadays).

Here's what I think you should take seriously: YOUR data privacy. Here's a case where turning off the Voice Recognition feature will (according to Samsung) stop any listening-in on your conversations. Yes, you'll have to pick up the remote control rather than yelling at your television set. Is that really so difficult?

Of course, the best way to ensure privacy is not to connect it to the Internet in the first place. I've owned a Samsung television for years. It has an Ethernet port which gathers dust, and it works marvelously well.

Protect yourself
The Daily Beast article says it seems Samsung is collecting voice commands mostly to improve the TV’s performance. “It looks like they are using a third-party service to convert speech to text, so that’s most of what is being disclosed here,” said Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

However, McSherry also said: “If I were the customer, I might like to know who that third party was, and I’d definitely like to know whether my words were being transmitted in a secure form.” Imagine a TV set with activated Voice Recognition used in a boardroom for a confidential business meeting, with a live microphone converting what is being said to text and sending it to a third-party. How secure is that transmission? How valuable might that data be?

As always, convenience is a trade-off for security, and awareness is key.

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