Privacy Concerns With Samsung’s SmartTV

Recently, media outlets have been reporting on privacy concerns with Samsung’s SmartTV. Much of the concern appears to be focused on the “Voice Recognition” section of their SmartTV privacy statement:

“If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. 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.

On Twitter, Parker Higgins, who describes himself as an EFF activist, juxtaposed a passage from Chapter 1 of George Orwell’s 1984 novel with the above section of Samsung’s privacy statement, directly comparing the SmartTV’s voice recognition feature with a telescreen. The passage Higgins highlighted is as follows:

“Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.”

Despite the obvious differences between the two, note the obvious similarities: Both devices pick up their owner’s voice, and there’s no way to tell whether you’re being eavesdropped on at any given moment.Fortunately, the voice recognition feature can, at least at the moment, be turned off. However, its very existence is symptomatic of the larger privacy concerns associated with the Internet of Things.

Update (February 11, 2015): The concern isn’t just about what Samsung will or won’t do with any sensitive information it records. A Slate article has pointed out that hackers can hijack microphones to eavesdrop on you; something that no privacy policy can protect against. Want to modify the software to disable the voice recognition feature? You might face felony charges under the DMCA. Read more about the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions here.

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