Smart TVs, watching you as you watch them

9 Feb 2015

Samsung’s Smart TV privacy policy has sparked an internet debate over what’s right and wrong about third-party use of your personal information.

“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.”

So reads Samsung’s policy, and it hasn’t gone down well.

Despite the voice-recognition system more than likely using speech to better deal with different dialects of accents, the potential for misuse and financial gain piqued the Daily Beast’s interest last week, which started the ball rolling.

It would be nice to know more

“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,” it reported the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Corynne McSherry as saying.

“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.”

Following that piece, Reddit got in on the action, with a fairly humourous discussion on the policy’s wording, drumming up more and more interest in the matter.

Samsung has responded to the fallout, saying it “takes customer privacy very seriously”.

“In all of our Smart TVs we employ industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers’ personal information and prevent unauthorised collection or use.”

Surely companies such as Target, Anthem and Sony Pictures also took “privacy very seriously”, but it didn’t stop people who badly wanted information from hacking in and getting it.

The internet, a world of watchers

However, as most people know, this is hardly new practice for smart devices, or indeed anything hooked up to the internet.

The vast majority of policies online, often clicked without a moment’s notice, allow for these types of companies to sell on data which you provide, to third parties. Sometimes not for profit, but sometimes purely for that reason.

Tom’s Guide took a particularly ‘who cares’ attitude to the discussion last week, saying that if you want in on the internet, there is an element of acceptance needed that the sharing of information is what helped shape the current online environment.

“If you’re concerned about Samsung capturing personal data from your offhand conversations, go ahead and disable Voice Recognition. But as for the associated moral panic, it may be too little, too late. The internet runs on your personal data, and there’s not much you can do about it.”

In truth, even turning off Voice Recognition won’t do the job, as Samsung’s policy explains.

“If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands. While Samsung will not collect your spoken word, Samsung may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it.”

Campaigning for the better

Of course that’s not to say you should accept everything proposed to you in the online world. Continuous attempts to protect consumer privacy online are made.

A few weeks ago, online privacy activist Max Schrems said third-party use of our information was entirely out of order, and not something we would accept if we saw it happen in front of our eyes.

He gave the analogy of postal workers opening letters in order to better serve customers with advertising, saying that’s precisely what Google does with email. Yet people would find the idea of postal workers doing the same outrageous.

“I have read Facebook’s privacy policy a million times and I still can’t tell you what they are doing with my data,” he said.

In a more politically pressing scenario, only last week the UK’s surveillance arm GCHQ was found to be entirely unlawful in snooping on its citizens and sharing that information with its US counterpart.

If anything, despite this Samsung debate being little more than late reaction to an ongoing practice, the more discussion there is on the topic of privacy, the better.

TV watching you image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic