Shhhh! The T.V.'s on… it might hear you!

Are smart televisions the newest privacy risk?

By Leah Ching

The Argus

photo by Jaygoldman/ Flickr

Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 featured the concept of a “telescreen” that snooped on and transmitted your private conversations to an unseen listener. Orwell’s nightmare may have come to realization with Samsung’s new Smart TV technology.

Samsung is one of many technology providers capitalizing on voice recognition technology, allowing for hands free control of a voice activated TV. Samsung’s Internet-connected “Smart TV’s” are activated by talking directly at the screen. Behind that expensive convenience however, is a Samsung server allegedly recording and transmitting its data to third party clients.

This potential privacy intrusion is disturbing. Their original privacy policy warned users not to discuss personal information in front of their TV by saying, “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.”

An opt-out isn’t even allowed, with disabling the voice recognition “feature” replaced by a set of pre-defined voice commands. These are still gathered along with text-based inputs for Samsung’s data mining. With TV’s, credit cards, Internet service providers and social media all jumping on the data mining bandwagon, consumer privacy is becoming a huge concern.

New research shows that Samsung TVs transmit what you say, and they do so in unencrypted plaintext without the safeguard of using HTTPS.

Second year business student Alexa thought the phenomenon of creepy TVs and third party advertisers having access to her speech was “disturbing” but also purported that “it’s even worse that people fail to read their privacy policies or terms and conditions of usage, not knowing the risk they put themselves at.” She also added that “it’s unsurprising that companies continue to capitalize on data mining, given the business superpower advertising research companies have become.”

One well-known security researcher, David Lodge, has uploaded photos of the codes transmitted by the TV online, showing that it’s easy to read and interpret what was spoken. Included in this demonstration was the likeliness that one word was spoken over another, given its context. Lodge’s concern was the potential for a rogue firmware update on the technology to enable third party “snooping.”

There is a growing imperative amongst technology users to set boundaries on what is acceptable. Tech Crunch wrote a viral article asserting that the creepy vague wording of Samsung’s privacy policy doesn’t educate the consumer on how this data transition actually works.

The company has since edited their controversial privacy policy clause due to fierce Internet backlash. This is just one in a long string of accusations against companies that have failed to safely encrypt and store data in safe locations including big names like Skype and Viber.

The important question to consider remains: which is of more importance to Samsung and similar brands — consumer privacy, or capitalizing on the fortunes of data mining to third party advertisers?

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