For Americans concerned about their privacy, the NSA data grabs are daunting, but what about the data grabs happening inside your own home, perpetrated not by the government, but by your household appliances?
If those networks are hacked, information about your habits and behaviors could be available to people with nefarious goals. The same technological innovation that empowers us also makes us vulnerable to those who would exploit such advances against us.
A recent report says Samsung’s Internet-connected Smart TV might be listening in on your conversations and transmitting them to a third party via a voice control feature meant to change channels, adjust volume, browse apps and more.
Samsung’s overly succinct description is missing some critical context. Namely, it doesn’t say when the spoken words are captured, under what conditions data is transmitted to a third party, or who that third party is.
The mysterious ‘third party’
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. Titans like Apple, Google, and Amazon can do this on their own servers, usually with technology they own through multi-million-dollar acquisitions. But most smaller companies, including Samsung, use third-party companies to do the same work. LG, Panasonic and a host of others do, too.
Tons of your other devices do the same thing
It seems unfair to demonize Samsung Smart TVs specifically when so many other household devices do the same thing. Look at the Xbox 360 and Xbox One Kinect service, LG’s Smart TVs, Amazon’s Echo speaker, Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana — these are all examples of technology that await a verbal prompt and connect to the Internet as a resource when needed, and they could just as easily be spying on us.
Here’s how the policy states that warning, as vocalised by another well-known voice recognition application.
Although Apple won’t confirm it publicly, quite a bit of Siri’s cleverness in understanding spoken language comes from technology supplied by Nuance Communications, Inc. And such is the sensitivity of Apple’s suppliers to crossing the computing-device giant that even a year after Nuance’s CEO confirmed the relationship, Nuance rank and file are reluctant to talk about it.
“Please be aware that if you’re spoken words to Siri 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.” Would you like to reply?
Of course anyone with Siri or something similar on their phone knows you have to be careful what you say sometimes.
But what troubles some observers about smart household goods like TVs and other products is the fact that you may not always be sure when your new gadget is listening in.
“I suppose the interesting thing, or the interesting difference between the television and the phone example is that when you’re dictating into a phone you know exactly what you’re doing, whereas with a television you might just be sitting around chatting to your friends and you’re inadvertently activating sort of this voice command technology which will start recording what you’re saying,” said Jake Goldenfein from the Centre for Media and Communications Law at the University of Melbourne.
Some technology experts say that “big brother” may not be actually paying any attention to what we say just yet, more how we say it.
Where can it go?
“When it says don’t discuss personal information in front of your TV, what it’s actually saying is that identifiers of your voice are being sent to third party services when you’re using this television. LG has a very similar clause in its terms and conditions as well,” said Luke Hopewell of the online technology journal Gizmodo Australia.
What are these third party services doing with our voices? Are they actually keeping recordings of what we’re saying?
“They’re not so much keeping recordings so much as keeping data points. Those data points mean what you’re voice inflection sounds like, you know, which words that you said,” Hopewell said.
Samsung representative said that the information is only used to “help improve the voice recognition.” For instance, by noting certain regional accents and dialects, the speech recognition software can better understand people in different parts of the country.
The Australian accent in particular is very, very difficult to decode. Samsung worked with people at Macquarie University to actually figure out what people were saying before they could bring voice recognition to Australia. Microsoft had similar problems as well.
So it’s about getting a better “quality of service.” But it really raises questions about what we’re going to do in the smart home in the future. This is the first time that people have actually recognized that, hey, this might be a problem if we start giving all of our information over in our smart home to third party services.
Here are nine appliances and other systems inside your house that may be spying on you right now, or used to spy on you in the future.
- Your Dishwasher, Clothes Dryer, Toaster, Clock Radio and Remote Control
- Your Cable Box
- Your Lights
- Your Heat and A/C
- Your Television
- Security Alarms
- Insulin Pumps and Pacemakers
- Your Tablet and Computer
Stop Your Smart TV From Eavesdropping On You
If you’ve already spent the money on a Smart TV you can’t return — it’s possible to disable the feature. Here’s how to turn off voice control:
The easiest way.
Avoid the remote.
According to a video from Samsung, you need to hold a button on your Smart TV remote to activate voice recognition. When it’s active, a microphone icon appears on the TV screen. In theory, if you don’t hold that button and the microphone isn’t displayed, you shouldn’t worry that your television is listening to whatever elaborate conspiracy you’re plotting in the family room.
The somewhat harder but more absolute way.
Turn the feature off altogether.
You can use the menu button on your Smart TV’s remote control to deactivate voice recognition, according to this Samsung video. Switching it off means you won’t have to worry about accidentally bumping the remote’s voice recognition button at the exact millisecond you divulge secret information that must be kept from a South Korean electronics company at all costs.
The inconvenient way.
Depending on your Samsung TV, you might be able to disable the WiFi altogether. This will stop the device from picking up voice commands, according to Samsung. (Some have had trouble shutting off WiFi on older models, which seem to require tricky workarounds.) Doing this will make your Smart TV about as dumb as a normal TV, and while that kind of defeats the purpose of buying one in the first place, at least you won’t feel paranoid about it eavesdropping on you.
The actually insane way.
Get ready for some surgery.
If you can’t figure out how to turn off your television’s WiFi, this video offers a way to rip the thing open and disable it manually. This, however, will void your warranty and could even render your TV useless. We don’t recommend it.
While these tips are specific to Samsung Smart TV devices, similar methods can be used to turn off the voice control options on other TVs that use voice recognition.
Smart TVs, whether made by Samsung or its competitors appear to be some sort of Orwellian manifestation.