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Is Your Television Spying on You?

The story is more than a year old, but I saw it for the first time last week when some of my Facebook friends shared an article about the possibility of Samsung "smart TVs" having the capability of spying on their viewers.

Samsung has confirmed that its "smart TV" sets are listening to customers' every word, and the company is warning customers not to speak about personal information while near the TV sets.

The company revealed that the voice activation feature on its smart TVs will capture all nearby conversations. The TV sets can share the information, including sensitive data, with Samsung as well as third-party services.

But how much of a danger is it, really? Does Samsung—or any company—have the storage capability to keep data files of all conversations spoken in the presence of every single smart TV set ever sold? And even if they did, how many employees would they need to devote to listening to these conversations to pick out something interesting?

Within days after the story broke, Caleb Denison published an article in Digital Trends putting some context to the claims.

The suggestion that Samsung Smart TVs are “always listening” is a misnomer, and at the core of all the scuttlebutt. The fact is, Samsung’s Smart TVs are asleep on the job 99 percent of the time. They’re programmed to “wake up” when they detect a pre-programmed phrase such as “Hi TV,” but — and this is critical — until that phrase is spoken, they aren’t “paying attention” to anything you say, nor are they storing or reporting anything.

But what about this "third party" business?

Why does your voice data need to leave your TV at all? Because translating speech to text requires some intense computing, and Samsung uses an outside service to do some of the heavy lifting....

The sort of third party that you would be right to worry about are the ones that want to pay for information about you — advertisers and data miners, for instance. But Samsung clearly states in its privacy policy that it does not retain voice data or sell it to third parties. You’ll never see ads for Cheetos just because your TV overheard you whining about how badly you wanted a bag of them at 3 a.m. after a night out.

That all makes sense, but isn't there still a danger that this recording capability could be misused?

The worst-case scenario might look something like this: A Samsung Smart TV hears something similar to its wakeup word in a casual in-room conversation — let’s say “tiny bee,” for instance — and wakes up. Somehow the user doesn’t notice the glowing signal on the TV screen, nor do thy hear the audible alert. The TV is now listening when the user’s conversation moves to a sensitive topic, say a social-security number or something of a sexual nature.

In this instance, the TV is going to send the voice recording off for processing. Then what’s going to happen? If the TV considers it a search for information, it could end up returning a result on its built-in Web browser, and, granted, that could a be little weird. But that’s the end of it. The information, Samsung assures us, is encrypted in transit and doesn’t get stored.

So: move along, nothing to see here? Or is there more to it than that?

A 2015 Snopes article—updated this month after the concerns were recirculated on Facebook—generally agrees with Denison, but also notes concerns raised in 2014 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The greater danger is not what Samsung may do with this capability, but what the NSA or a criminal hacker may be able to do if they get control of the device.

They can absolutely turn them on with the power turned off to the device. That's pretty scary but the thing about the Rangers game is also scary. You might say: does anybody really care that I'm looking up the score for the Rangers game? Well, a government or a hacker or some other nefarious individual would say yes, they're very interested in that, because that tells a lot about you. First off, it tells you probably speak English, it says you're probably an American, you're interested in this sport. And they might know what your habits are? Where were you when the world when you checked the score? Did you check it when you travel or did you check it when you're just at home?

They'd be able to tell something called your pattern of life: when are you doing these kind activities? When do you wake up, when do you go to sleep? What other phones are around you when you wake up and go to sleep? Are you with someone who's not your wife? Are you doing something? Are you someplace you shouldn't be? According to the government, which is arbitrary. Are you engaged in any kind of activities that we disapprove of, even if they aren't technically illegal.

Smart devices may have several benefits, but at what cost to our privacy? Since the greatest potential risk comes from sources we may not even be aware of, we can't really know what kind of tradeoff we're making. How can we make an informed decision?

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