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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?

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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