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Is Your Smart TV Spying on You?

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Internet connected TVs are the wave of the future. These units can allow you to browse the web, sync with other enabled devices, and access popular services to stream video from across the world. Like so many pieces of technology, they have the ability to enhance our lives through greater convenience and enhanced features. However, as one recent article indicates, they may also have capabilities that cause privacy concerns.

One of the handy features employed by many smart TVs is voice recognition – a feature that allows the user to speak commands and say, change a channel or mute the TV to take a call. While this may be a very convenient way to interact with the TV set, the inclusion of a microphone in your TV set opens the door for voice recording and transmission.

According to the privacy policy  for a particular brand of smart TV sets, consent to use the voice command feature also allows the TV to record and transmit the user’s speech to “third parties.” This means that any conversation had in proximity to one of these TV sets could make its way outside of the user’s home. What is even more troubling about this development is that the third party who receives this information is not disclosed to the user. Also, it cannot be assumed that the voice data obtained might not be sold, monitored, or otherwise used in ways that the user may not consent to. As the policy 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.”

Asked to explain this broad and rather invasive collection of data by their TVs, the manufacturer explained that the goal of recording and collecting voice data is to improve the performance of the TV sets and future voice recognition technology. Experts agree that the “third party” is likely a company specializing in the development of speech-to-text software, and that voice recordings collected help them to better understand how people talk to their TVs, and thus help future TVs to better understand their owners.

Even if (and it is far from certain, given the vague language used to explain the data collection) the voice recordings are only used to improve TV performance, they raise another concern. If voice recordings of individuals in their homes are sent over an insecure network at any point in their journey between the home and any locations where they are used, they become vulnerable to hackers. An adept coder could easily turn a user’s smart TV into a remote listening device or camera, enabling the misuse of technology and spying on individuals through the devices they own.

While experts agree that the reasoning behind such data collection is likely about “customization and convenience” for the user, the fact that the door is open to misuse or abuse of the data creates concerns. Is it worth weighing the privacy of a household against the goal of better TV service down the road? Should more be done to explain the collection of data so that consumers understand how and why information is gathered about them, and allow them to opt-out of the data collection? Is there a better way to gather information that benefits both the company and protects the consumer’s privacy at the same time?

The TV manufacturer also points out that any user uncomfortable with their voice being recorded can simply disable voice commands, or disconnect the TV  from their WiFi network. This will, of course, limit the convenience and usability of key features that many users will have purchased the TV for in the first place. Is some invasion of privacy the cost of enhanced technology, or is this a trend we can and need to stop?

Discuss these issues related to privacy with your family and consider better alternatives for the future. Also talk about the importance of reading privacy policies, user agreements, and other instances of “fine print” when it comes to the products we use and the services we interact with online. Being informed, inquisitive, and critical are the best ways to develop our own ethical code as technology continues to expand its role in our lives.