A Very Slippery Slope – Yes, Your Samsung Smart TV Can Listen to Your Private Conversations

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 12.00.50 PMThe biggest story in the tech world today is the revelation that Samsung’s Smart TV can and will listen to your conversations, and will share the details with a third party. Yes, you read that right. Here’s the actual language from the privacy policy itself:

“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.”

Naturally, this has freaked people out and led to multiple comparisons to 1984 and the ubiquitous Big Brother. It was framed exceptionally well by EFF activist Parker Higgins in the following tweet:

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.21.39 AM

While the privacy policy statement is disturbing in its own right, the extent of how creepy it is has to do with the fact that this information will be shared with a “third party.” This begs the question, who is this third party? Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has some thoughts. From the Daily Beast:

Judging by the privacy policy, it seems Samsung is collecting voice commands mostly to improve the TV’s performance. “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,” said Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But, said McSherry, “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.” If the transmission is not encrypted, a SmartHacker could conceivably turn your TV into an eavesdropping device.

After reading this, I have two concerns. First, there’s the point outlined by McSherry about the vulnerability to hackers. So even if we can be assured that Samsung and the third party aren’t up to anything nasty, is the entire process secure enough to protect ourselves from hackers, or an intelligence agency like the NSA? I have my doubts.

Beyond this, there is an equally important concern regarding how this trend might progress into the future, and how it will future erode personal privacy if we don’t address it now.

Take Facebook for example. In its early days it was a seemingly benign, efficient and enjoyable way to stay in touch with friends and reconnect with olds ones. It lured in over a billion users and then essentially decided to turn on all of them without really ever letting anyone know in order to make an incredible amount of money. I’ve discussed some examples of this on Liberty Blitzkrieg on many occasions (links at the end), but most recently I highlighted an incredibly important and powerful article by Salim Varani, in the post: A Very Disturbing and Powerful Post – “Get Your Loved Ones Off Facebook”. Here’s an excerpt:

Facebook doesn’t keep any of your data safe or anonymous, no matter how much you lock down your privacy settings. Those are all a decoy. There are very serious privacy breaches, like selling your product endorsement to advertisers and politicianstracking everything you read on the internet, or using data from your friends to learn private things about you – they have no off switch.

Facebook’s blocks posts based on political content it doesn’t like. They blocked posts about Fergusson and other political protests. When Zuckerberg alledgedly went a bit nuts and banned the word “privacy” from meetings at Facebook, it was also blocked from any Facebook post. You just got an error message about “inappropriate content”. Yeah, uh huh. Inappropriate for who?

If you’ve ever used Facebook contact sync, or used Facebook on your mobile phone, Facebook took your complete contact list. Real names, phone numbers, addresses, emails, everything. They then use that to create “shadow profiles” of the people you know who aren’t on Facebook. Non Facebook users often see this in action, in the form of emails to them from Facebook, containing their personal information. Facebook users can see this when they upload a picture of a non-Facebook user, and they’re automatically tagged. My friend’s not on Facebook, but since me and a few friends used Facebook on our phones, Facebook has his name and contact information, plus knows who his friends are because it sees him in their address book and calling records. 

That’s even scarier because Facebook is used heavily for political advertising, and product endorsements. People know I raised money for kids with cancer before, so they might not be surprised if they see an ad where I’m endorsing a Christian outreach programme poor kids in Africa. But I categorically only support programmes that don’t have religious allegiances, since they’re known to bias their support to people who convert. Worse, a lot of people might assume things about my religious beliefs based on these false endorsements. Don’t even get me started on all the hypey startup stuff I don’t condone!

Bet you didn’t think that this is what Facebook would become when you first joined, did you? But this is indeed what it has become, and now that you’re hooked you can cut the cord. Like with drug dealers, “the first one’s always free.” If you haven’t read Salim’s article in full, I strongly suggest you do.

Now back to the original Daily Beast article for some more thoughts on the matter…

Samsung’s privacy policy notes that in addition to voice commands being transmitted, information about your device, “including device identifiers,” may also be beamed over the Internet to the third-party service, “or to the extent necessary to provide Voice Recognition features to you.”

McSherry called that bit of qualifying language “worrisome.”

“Samsung may just be giving itself some wiggle room as the service evolves, but that language could be interpreted pretty broadly,” she said.

This is my key concern. Although it might be completely benign right now, that in no way, shape or form means it will remain that way.  In fact, once everyone is hooked on SmartTVs and forgets about this whole hubbub, these companies could eagerly turn around and sell all of your private conversation details to advertisers or worse. By then, it might be too late for you to let go.

For related articles, see:

A Very Disturbing and Powerful Post – “Get Your Loved Ones Off Facebook”

Meet the 77th Battalion – The British Army is Mobilizing 1,500 “Facebook Warriors” to Spread Disinformation

Freedom of Speech? Boston Mayor Bans Bad Mouthing of Olympics, as Facebook Will Filter Out “Fake News”

Why You Should Think Twice Before Using Facebook’s Messenger App

Was the Department of Defense Behind Facebook’s Controversial Manipulation Study?

This Man’s $600,000 Facebook Disaster is a Warning For All Small Businesses

In Liberty,
Michael Krieger

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4 Comments

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  1. Anyone who is literate at all and has normal concerns for privacy would be aware that Big Data is being shoved down our throat, from Smart Meters to social media to these new “improvements.”

    It is beyond my understanding how anyone would not be outraged that the sanctity of your own home is no longer respected by these technologies. And for what? So someone can sit like Jabba the Hut and give voice commands to an appliance that spews lies and mind rot 24/7. Incredible.

    I have not owned a television for over ten years and these have been the most productive and enriching years of my life. It is empowering to know that, at least for myself, I am resisting. Resisting the propaganda, the advertising sludge, the mindless consumerism, the ever plummeting level of public morality and so on.

    I would hate to give up the Net because it is a cornucopia of information that would be nearly impossible to access so easily in any other way. But if they start the tracking, the surveillance and the regulation of it more than they already have, it goes too. My liberty is absolutely non-negotiable.

  2. The all seeing all pervasive all invasive “eye” of the State god is mimicking the God of the Bible by attempting to be all seeing, all knowing, all powerful. Maybe they forgot that the Lord Himself said that we should have no other gods before us, save THE ONE!

    This inordinate need to control is axiomatic to Mankind’s control issues, hence we get the Govt and or leaders we deserve – Germany evolved and conceived Hitler, not the other way around. We are enjoined to call no man Father nor Leader, but people crave leaders while some crave leadership – they are welcome to each other in their dysfunctional diddle fest…

  3. Welcome To 1984

  4. In the TV show Max Headroom, all of the TVs had no on/off switch, just channel selector and volume. And as I recall, they logged what shows you watched.

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