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Privacy concerns surround Smart TV technology

Thursday, February 12, 2015
 | 
Michael F. Haverluck (OneNewsNow.com)

Smart TV viewers might be a little more guarded next time they strike up conversations in front of their flat screens.

A Closer LookAs technology continues to supposedly make life easier for electronics consumers, it might be coming with an unsuspected sacrifice — privacy.

Will the convenience of not having to search between sofa cushions, replace old batteries, and turn on the lights to see the buttons on your once-convenient TV remote be worth giving up one's privacy to unknown third parties listening in on the other end of voice prompts?

According to TechCrunch.com, owning a Smart TV with voice recognition is similar to having the speaker-phone feature on one's Smartphone stuck on the "on" position while on a group call with an unknown party.

"The potential privacy intrusion of voice-activated services is massive," the technology website asserts. "Samsung, which makes a series of Internet-connected TVs, has a supplementary privacy policy covering its Smart TVs."

By the way, you're on candid speaker

Samsung – one of the world's largest manufacturers of televisions, cell phones, tablets, and numerous other electronic and mobile devices – warns consumers through the following policy/disclosure that their voices might be going further than the voice recognition gizmo inside their Smart TVs.

"Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with voice recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. 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."

The often-overlooked disclosure notifies technology connoisseurs that their voices will not only be received by the "smart" device, but transmitted to an outside set of ears attached to a human body or virtual intelligence. The disclosure continues:

"You can control your Smart TV, and use many of its features, with voice commands. If you enable voice recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the voice recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the voice recognition features to you."

Ears everywhere

According to TechCrunch.com's Natahas Lomas, this kind of technology and invasion into the home is becoming all-too commonplace.

"Last fall, for instance, Amazon revealed a connected speaker with a Siri-style assistant that can perform tasks like adding items to your ecommerce shopping basket on command," Lomas reported. "Internet-connected 'smart TVs' which let couch-potatoes channel-hop by talking at their screen, rather than mashing the buttons of a physical remote control, are even more common — despite dubious utility to the user."

And in the pioneering spirit of data mining, spy technology is has found its way to sneak its way into every consumer's life to optimizing marketing strategies.

"The clear consumer electronics trajectory is for more devices with embedded ears that can hear what their owners are saying," Lomas announced. "And, behind those ears, the server-side brains to data-mine our conversations for advertising intelligence."

Smart TV with voice recognition 620x300Inviting 'Big Brother'

One activist from Electronic Frontier Foundation, Parker Higgins, tweeted that the idea of a TV screen spying on private conversations and broadcasting a chilling effect by repetitively teaching self-censorship within its viewers is a plot right out of George Orwell's classic, 1984, where the government is keeping a watchful eye on its citizens through futuristic technology.

Even though the announced home invasion is as disturbing as it is shocking, accolades have been given to Samsung for candidly telling its consumers what is really going on with its voice activation technology.

"The Samsung example is just the latest privacy-related concern involving smart TVs — many of which routinely require users to agree to having their viewing data sent back to the TV maker and shared by them with advertisers and others simply in order for them to gain access to the service," TechCrunch's Lomas continued. "But the clarity of wording in Samsung's privacy policy is impressive — given it amounts to a warning not to talk about private stuff in front of your telescreen because multiple unknown entities can listen in."

The information might be there for Smart technology consumers to read, but the industry knows that only a small percentage of purchasers bother to read the fine print and will unknowingly set up a the equivalent of a microphone in the middle of their once-private living rooms and bedrooms.

"Creepy, tech-fueled privacy intrusions are rarely detailed as clearly as that," Lomas contends. "So full marks to Samsung for clarity. Albeit, as per usual, these warnings are contained within the most overlooked type of document on the Internet so will easily go unnoticed by the average user."

remote controlBetter to be 'Smart' or not so 'Smart?'

Some of the unwanted eavesdropping can be mitigated. But if Smart technology consumers don't want their personal life broadcasted to the world in some way, shape or form, Lomas suggests they revert to the "Stone Age" technology with which they grew up in decades past — an era in which they managed to survive.

"If the Smart TV owner does realize how ridiculous this is, Samsung does at least allow them to disable the eavesdropping voice recognition 'feature,' and instead use a more limited set of predefined 'voice commands' — and in that instance says it does not harvest their spoken words," Lomas added. "However, it will still gather usage info and any other text-based inputs for data mining purposes, as it also notes further down in the policy. So, an entire opt-out of being tracked is not part of this very expensive package."

Disabling some of the features might be beneficial, but with the high price tag for Smart technology, consumers should first evaluate whether voice recognition is really worth it on two fronts — money and privacy.

"If you do not enable voice recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands," Lomas informed. "While Samsung will not collect your spoken word, Samsung may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it. You may disable voice recognition data collection at any time by visiting the 'settings' menu. However, this may prevent you from using all of the voice recognition features."

Buyer beware … they're everywhere

Lomas warns that this home invasion technology is not just the latest fad in technology — it's here to stay.

"An Internet-connected TV that eavesdrops on the stuff you say when you're sitting on the sofa is just the latest overreaching privacy intrusion to come to light in the tech sphere," Lomas warns. "It's unlikely to be the worst, and sure won't be the last."

And it won't just be something consumers can avoid by talking in the closet or jumping in their car, as the auto industry is wiring up drivers with technology that can eventually turn every vehicle into a mobile broadcasting station.

"But as more of these egregious, overreaching policies come to light — and as more of the objects with which we are surrounded in our homes, cars and lives are networked up and brought online, and thus given (at very least) the technical ability to snoop on us — there is a growing imperative to clean up the darker corners of the digital commerce sphere — to set some boundaries on what is and is not acceptable … or risk growing consumer mistrust," Lomas concludes. "When all the objects in your home have networked ears that are fine-tuned for commercial intelligence gathering, where will you go to talk about 'personal' or 'sensitive' stuff?"

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