Voice activated televisions and game consoles that ‘listen’ and respond to voice commands have become increasingly popular. In order for these devices to work, however, the sounds they collect from their environment requires decoding, and that decoding is not performed within the device on location. For example, the popular TV manufacturer, Samsung, has recently come under pressure for what it does with the audio information collected by its televisions.
Voice Recognition Feature Provided by Third Parties
As first highlighted in The Daily Beast, “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 capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features.”
This creates major concerns for privacy campaigners.
Parker Higgins, activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tweeted that the Samsung terminology is like an excerpt from the old George Orwell novel, 1984. Samsung does not disclose what the external service is or what it does with data once it is no longer needed. Samsung maintains it takes consumer privacy 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.”
Voice Recognition functions need to be activated, and can be deactivated any time. Samsung claims the information is used by the third party only to provide for feature functionality.
However, as long ago as 2012, a Malta-based security firm, ReVuln, posted video confirming how its researchers were able to crack into Samsung TVs and capture personal user information. “We can install malicious software to gain complete root access to the TV,” they claimed at the time. Hackers target microphones and cameras to capture everything in front of the TV.
Smart TV manufacturers Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba can all monitor data streaming on 2014 and 2014 model smart TVs. Each use that information to push advertising targeted toward the specific user.
Loss of Functionality
People can reduce and/or stop data being collected by declining the TV’s terms and conditions. Doing so, however, could cause a loss in functionality.
A Which? investigation confirmed that Panasonic blocked functions that required internet access; Toshiba and LG blocked internet access and certain apps but allowed basic TV functions to work; Samsun reportedly stopped all access to the TV set; Sony was the only brand that only blocked tracking that lost content recommendations, but did not limit other functions.
IT consultant Jason Huntley learned that his LG smart TV tracked his family’s television usage and even knew his children’s names.
Columbia University completed a study in June of last year confirming the vulnerability of hybrid smart TVs to even a simple hack attack. In only minutes, hackers can access accounts that have been accessed via a smart TV and begin broadcasting destructive programs and information.
Be sure to closely read the smart TV manufacturer’s terms and conditions to be sure you’re aware how your family room conversations are used in the digital realm.
Chances are there’s not much interest in what most of us are saying while in front of or talking to our TVs, but the idea that what we say in private can be recorded, thereby distorted, goes against everything protected by our Fourth Amendment. While people look at things like voice activation as a convenience, anything that easy to use is just as easy to use against you.
So, while the libs were blowing kisses and the conservatives were cussing during O’s SOTU speech, what were our TVs recording? I still have a dumb TV so it’s not spying on me, how about you?