Connected Home Requires More Than Just Digital Locks

with Erin Lawrence

When I was a kid, I used to shout into the TV.  Not at the TV, into it.  My young, malleable brain thought that if sound came out of the TV it must also go in. I figured out that TV audio was not a two-way conversation after my votes for Miss Canada were not calculated, and Casey and Finnegan didn’t take me up on my offers (so many) to come over to my house to play.

I used to laugh at my naive and childish idea that the TV could hear me.  Until recently when an uproar broke out over Samsung’s new Smart TV.  A journalist with Salon first brought the issue to light in an article called, “I’m terrified of my new TV: Why I’m scared to turn this thing on — and you’d be, too.”



In a nutshell, Salon flagged the vast amount of data the Smart TV is collecting, but the article never names the manufacturer.  So how much data are we talking about? The TV referenced “logs where, when, how and for how long you use the TV. It sets tracking cookies and beacons designed to detect “when you have viewed particular content or a particular email message.” It records “the apps you use, the websites you visit, and how you interact with content.” It ignores ‘do-not-track’ requests as a considered matter of policy.”

“The FBI will not have to bug your living room; you will do it yourself.”
Scared yet?  You will be.  Author Michael Price goes on to point out that facial recognition technology and always-on voice recognition means the TV never stops focusing on whatever you do within its range. “On the upside, the images are saved on the TV instead of uploaded to a corporate server. On the downside, the Internet connection makes the whole TV vulnerable to hackers who have demonstrated the ability to take complete control of the machine. More troubling is the microphone. The TV boasts a “voice recognition” feature that allows viewers to control the screen with voice commands. But the service comes with a rather ominous warning: “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.” Got that? Don’t say personal or sensitive stuff in front of the TV. You may not be watching, but the telescreen is listening,” he writes.

Soon after, Daily Beast outed Samsung as one of the makers of the spy TVs in its article, “Your Samsung SmartTV Is Spying on You, Basically”

Is this worrisome? Absolutely.  In a world where privacy is a diminishing commodity, we feel safe in our own homes.  But that’s no longer the case.  In the future, as Price explains it, “The FBI will not have to bug your living room; you will do it yourself.”

So what can you do about your smart devices spying on you? Seems the only answer coming from manufacturers is to dumb them back down, by turning off the voice and facial recognition features.  That is, if you actually trust that some IT guru somewhere can’t turn it back on next time there’s a firmware update.

Which brings us back to why privacy advocates are rallying regulators to step in. Samsung isn’t the whipping boy here.  No, there’s Smart TVs from plenty of manufacturers from VIZIO to LG, plus a host of others: Microsoft’s Kinect controller, Amazon’s Echo assistant, and that’s not all.  The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has outed several more examples of devices that may be listening to you. Nest, Canary, and Amazon to name a few. And let’s just keep the hits coming: “In the past weeks, EPIC has learned that Google’s Chromium browser contains code that routinely captures private communications.” Plus, EPIC outs toy-maker Mattel’s “Hello Barbie,” a wifi-enabled doll with a built-in microphone that records your kid’s conversations  and then shoots them straight to Mattel, where they are used to figure out “all the child’s likes and dislikes.”

Is this 1984?

Those examples (call them distressing or downright terrifying) are what prompted EPIC to formally ask that these kinds of consumer goods be reviewed for privacy violations. As they explain in a letter you can read here, “it is unreasonable to expect consumers to monitor their every word in front of their home electronics,” the letter says. “It is also genuinely creepy.”

No guff, as my 6-year-old TV-talking self would have said.

EPIC is trying to convince the Federal Trade Commission that all these smart devices and their “always on” capabilities “constitute unlawful surveillance under federal wiretap law,” illegally intercepting private conversations for questionable purposes. It’s not the first time, either: Earlier this year EPIC asked the FTC to launch a formal investigation into Samsung’s TV and file an injunction preventing devices with voice-activated commands from listening in on consumers’ conversations. In the complaint,

EPIC states:

Samsung’s attempts to disclaim its intrusive surveillance activities by means of a ‘privacy notice’ do not diminish the harm to American consumers. It is incumbent upon the Federal Trade Commission to take action in this matter, and to enjoin Samsung and other companies that engage in similar practices, from such unlawful activities.


In the latest letter, send July 10, EPIC—which references Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey— a list of six questions the organization feels must be answered in order to protect consumers from essentially being spied on in their homes.

Among the questions:

 How do the devices operate and, if voices are captured, where is that information sent?

 Do the companies authenticate consumers and, if so, are consumers aware of this?

Is there an obligation for companies that collect information via smart devices to encrypt the data they obtain, and how long is the data stored?

Is the use of ‘always on devices that intercept communications permissible under the federal wiretap act or various state laws?

Have consumers given meaningful consent to the interception and recording of their communications?

If the purchaser of the device has given consent, does that consent include others in the home whose communications may be recorded and processed?

Imagine the house party of the future, in which all attendees are asked to sign a release form because the TV and stereo might be swapping information on which songs get better reactions from the crowd, automatically adjusting the playlist accordingly and then sending notifications to particular guests for new albums by artists they might like based on their commentary.

Paranoia? Sure.

For now.

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