I'm so paranoid that when I intend to bad mouth someone behind their back, I have to check my cellphone first in case by some kind of disastrous coincidence I have accidentally phoned that person's number with my ass. This has never happened, but it's always a chronic fear. With this in mind, I probably will not be purchasing a Samsung SmartTV.
When releasing their new 'next-generation' of televisual products, Samsung proudly claimed, "TV has never been this smart." That's probably true, although it might not be such a good thing. Yes, the Samsung SmartTV can run loads of apps, stream internet videos and be linked up to using Wi-Fi. That's all fine, but the SmartTV has another feature - voice activation commands.
The TV That's Always Listening
Of course, for voice-activation to work, it has to be active all the time - that way you don't have to waste 16 minutes finding the remote control every time you want to use the thing. Presumably, the television is just hanging around and casually translating everything it hears to see if it fits one of its control words or phrases. This all sounds rather practical and innocuous. Unfortunately, that's not how the system works.
Instead, Samsung sends all the voice information it receives to a 'third-party' via your TV's Wi-Fi connection. These guys then translate the speech into text and transfer it back to your television to be scanned for command words. Of course, all of this was in that privacy agreement you didn't actually read, although you ticked the box which said you did.
In the privacy agreement, Samsung states:
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.
But then things start to get even more worrying, as they continue:
Samsung is not responsible for these providers’ privacy or security practices. You should exercise caution and review the privacy statements applicable to the third-party websites and services you use.
Samsung doesn't even let you know who, or where, this third-party is located, but instead told Daily Beast it uses 'industry standard' levels of encryption to protect customers. I guess this is supposed to sound reassuring to consumers, until you realize the 'industry standard' levels of encryption are seemingly incapable of protecting even major corporations from hacking. Indeed, Sony even claimed they had 'high end' levels of encryption.
But hang on, it gets worse. Samsung also states in the documentation - under the label headed "Third Parties" - that they have no control or influence over the privacy or security practices of these anonymous third parties. After the Daily Beast published its report, Samsung releases a statement clarifying the process. It claimed:
If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV.
It added the third-party did not retain data or sell on the audio being captured.
ZDNet claims the third-party is likely to be Nuance, a company which specializes in cloud-based voice recognition services. In its first quarter Nuance has gained contracts from the following companies: BMW, Bosch, ChuangZu, DoCoMo, Ford, Fujitsu, Harman, Honda, Huawei, LG, Mahindra, Mitac, Motorola, Optus, Panasonic, Peugeot, Pioneer, Renault, Samsung, Subaru, Thales, Vivo, and ZTE.
So soon you're car, washing machine, and camera will be listening to you.
So, What's The Big Deal?
To some, this might not sound like a big deal - and often, when it comes to these online privacy debates, we can get carried away with ourselves. In most cases the inane drivel we talk about online, or in front of the TV for that matter, is of no value to anyone - even the person you're actually talking to you. But that's not the point.
In George Orwell's peerless political science fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he introduces the concept of Telescreens - devices which not only act as televisions, but also a security camera, therefore allowing the state entry to every home. Orwell developed this concept to illustrate the totalitarian expansion of the state's information apparatus into the personal lives of every citizen.
I have to admit, this SmartTV does seem dangerously close to a Telescreen, if only in its potential capabilities. I just think if we are literally approaching the technological infrastructure of perhaps the world's most famous and respected dystopian novel, we should probably at least stop to decide if it's really a good idea. Even for a few moments.
Despite their assurances, it does seem this process between Samsung and the unknown 'third party' isn't exactly watertight. It seems it could easily be infiltrated by nefarious actors and/or the state. If the PRISM and Snowden leaks have proven anything, it's that the security and information community will go far beyond the commonly accepted reasonable levels of surveillance to get what they want.
What Can You Do?
Well, luckily there is an easy way around this, and it's an option not available to Orwell's citizens in Airstrip One. To get around this issue you can simply turn off the voice recognition feature via the settings, or disconnect the TV from the Wi-Fi. But this would basically render your SmartTV dumb again.
All I know is that I'm going to watch what I say in the Moviepilot office. We've got four of these spying bastards.
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