Skip to Content

Is Your TV Spying on You?

Our devices may be too smart for their own good.
April 4, 2012

You watch your TV. But in the near future, your TV may watch you.

In March, HD Guru wrote an epic post on unsettling aspects of Samsung’s new top-of-the-line HDTVs. TVs, as we know, are getting smarter and smarter. Specifically, they’re acquiring cameras, microphones, face tracking, and speech recognition capabilities–as well as Internet connectivity. These are features meant to make our TVs smarter and, by extension, to make us happier. (Imagine doing a Skype video call over your 40” flatscreen.) 

But according to critics, they also open up a lot of privacy concerns.

HD Guru raised a host of questions: Could Samsung or its affiliates watch you watching TV? Could they listen in on you? If so, would Samsung, or anyone, store this info in the cloud? If so, would it, or could it, sell this data? What safeguards were there against hackers intercepting it? It’s a dizzying list, enough to conjure images meriting the adjective Orwellian–or, if 8th-grade English class is too remote by now, at least memories of that creepy mass surveillance scene in that recent Batman movie.

A few days ago, HD Guru (real name, Gary Merson) posted an update on his thinking. Samsung sent HD Guru an official comment and shared some of its privacy policies. A lot of what Samsung said was reassuring: “Samsung employs industry-standard security safeguards and practices (including data encryption) to secure consumers’ personal information and prevent its unauthorized collection or use”; “[the camera and mic] may also be used for video conference and speech-to-text services offered by third parties, in which case the audio and video data is transmitted to the service providers’ servers and does not pass through Samsung servers. Images captured in order to use the facial recognition feature are stored in a secure manner on the owner’s TV only.”

Though Merson quoted a privacy attorney saying Samsung needs to address some elements of its privacy policy “more properly,” for the most part, Samsung’s response seemed to suggest that people worrying that their TVs might watch them were suffering from some kind of paranoia.

But, as they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

CIA director David Petraeus has recently intimated how downright excited the agency is about connected devices like smart TVs, refrigerators, or dishwashers. “‘Transformational’ is an overused word, but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies,” he said at a summit, according to Wired, “particularly to their effect on clandestine tradecraft.”

There are, of course, considerable legal restrictions preventing the CIA from becoming Big Brother overnight, with the help of the good people of Samsung. But the fact that the technology to make it possible is there, and is soon to enter our living rooms, is unsettling. Has the American lust for smarter gadgets created an Orwellian infrastructure that could, in a less enlightened future, somehow be abused? And if our smart appliances open us up to an assortment of privacy risks, then just how smart are they?

Deep Dive


Five poems about the mind

DREAM VENDING MACHINE I feed it coins and watch the spring coil back,the clunk of a vacuum-packed, foil-wrappeddream dropping into the tray. It dispenses all kinds of dreams—bad dreams, good dreams,short nightmares to stave off worse ones, recurring dreams with a teacake marshmallow center.Hardboiled caramel dreams to tuck in your cheek,a bag of orange dreams…

Work reinvented: Tech will drive the office evolution

As organizations navigate a new world of hybrid work, tech innovation will be crucial for employee connection and collaboration.

lucid dreaming concept
lucid dreaming concept

I taught myself to lucid dream. You can too.

We still don’t know much about the experience of being aware that you’re dreaming—but a few researchers think it could help us find out more about how the brain works.

panpsychism concept
panpsychism concept

Is everything in the world a little bit conscious?

The idea that consciousness is widespread is attractive to many for intellectual and, perhaps, also emotional
reasons. But can it be tested? Surprisingly, perhaps it can.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.