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Are the Latest TVs Too Smart?

There is a recent advertising campaign from Samsung, sporting the slogan, “TV has never been this smart.” That’s the trouble - soon we may be wondering if TV is getting too smart for our own good!

First patented in 1994, the latest technology in televisions, the “Smart TVs” (also known as hybrid or connected TVs) can directly access the Internet connection in a person’s home and display Web content on their screens.  Quite a few of the high-end models, including those by Samsung, offer voice-recognition technology, which lets users change channels, do a programme search or adjust the volume simply by verbal commands. Samsung is not the first electronics company to introduce smart TV voice controls, but it is the main focus of concerns by a certain privacy group. The Electronic Privacy Information Centre  has requested that the Federal Trade Commission investigate, following close scrutiny of the company’s privacy policy, which revealed that third parties may be able to eavesdrop on conversations in the room using the TV’s built-in microphone.  The policy warns users 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.”*

There has been concern that Samsung’s data has not been properly encrypted, once transmitted, hence why they are in the spotlight regarding this issue. It is common knowledge of course that when we request directions, etc., from our smartphones, the phone has to transmit the request to an outside server: the voice recognition is in effect a fingerless keyboard for entering search queries. In a similar way, when you ask your smart TV to play a certain programme or display the channel guide, you know that it is getting the informational content from somewhere else. The only problem with this feature is that the users are not necessarily permitting the TV manufacturer to store the data, or share it with third parties for the purpose of marketing.

These types of electronic intrusions are certainly a cause for concern, especially following revelations about the National Security Agency programmes and breakdowns in privacy at businesses as diverse as Target and Anthem.  It is a very unsettling idea, that some unknown person could be listening in on conversations that occur while the TV is on.  It is also not just Smart TVs which can be to blame: there are also some video game consoles which can be controlled by voice, and Apple and Android mobile devices have allowed numerous users to use voice-search on a daily basis. Fortunately, most of these devices allow you to switch off the microphone or disable the voice-recognition utility. Additionally, you can disconnect your TV from the network, so that it will not transmit anything (although that then involves losing most of the benefits you get from having a smart TV). Also, it is worth noting that most devices activated by voice controls need an initiating command before they begin recording what you are saying (in theory, at least).

There are a number of ways that the privacy concerns may be resolved eventually, but  the best solution to this problem may arise from the technology itself.  In the future, the machines may have the capacity for storage and processing to handle all of the commands locally, which will dispense with the need to transmit the spoken commands (or transcriptions of commands) elsewhere.  The more that it is possible to wire into the hardware, the less need there will be to involve third parties or move data.


*Samsung Global Privacy Policy - SmartTV Supplement



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