Samsung SmartTV voice commands could present an intrusion into user privacy

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, protagonist Winston Smith lives in fear of his telescreen. Situated along a wall of his room, it can constantly see and hear what he’s doing, essentially regulating even his private life.

More than 60 years after the publication of Orwell’s seminal work, we’re not exactly buried under the terror of our Big Brother overlord watching our every moves through our TVs. But what we do have is Internet-connected and smart TVs – and while their capabilities may not be quite as disturbing as what’s presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four, maybe we should be watching what we say around them.

At least, that’s what Samsung is saying.

Last week, The Daily Beast reported Samsung is doing just that with its SmartTV, cautioning customers to recognize that anything they say may be recorded and forwarded to a third-party. The Korean electronics giant inserted a one-liner in its privacy policy warning people to be careful of what they say around it.

Buried somewhere under the heading “Voice Recognition,” here’s what Samsung has to say:

“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,” it reads.

The line before that indicates Samsung is collecting users’ voice commands to help the TV get better at recognizing them, but there are still issues with the company’s actions, according to Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

For one thing, she said she’s concerned about whether Samsung would be encrypting and delivering consumers’ transmissions in a secure form. If not, a hacker could ostensibly use a consumer’s SmartTV as a way to eavesdrop.

And beyond what consumers actually say out loud, in its privacy policy, Samsung has also said it may collect “device identifiers” and share them over the Internet with other third-party services. It may also collect that information “to the extent necessary to provide Voice Recognition features to you.”

“Samsung may just be giving itself some wiggle room as the service evolves, but that language could be interpreted pretty broadly,” said McSherry in an interview with The Daily Beast. 

While Samsung has since responded with a statement, indicating it does indeed use data encryption, it has also noted users can always opt out of using voice commands. They can also disconnect their TVs from the Wi-Fi network if they so choose, so it’s not like users are hamstrung for options.

Still, one takeaway from all this is that users do often forgo privacy to get features they want. For example, users of Siri or Google Now appreciate that those services recognize their location and the time of day, and that they can get traffic and weather updates that are relevant to them. It’s an exchange, and users typically understand and accept that. 

Even so – here’s hoping our connected TVs never become as sinister as the telescreens of Orwell’s world.

Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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