Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Techy Tuesday - When Your TV Watches You

For some reason, I haven't been able to shake an image of Yakov Smirnoff saying, "In Soviet Russia, TV watches you!" since I first saw the stories about the Samsung Smart TV.   In case you missed it, buried deep in the disclaimers that virtually nobody reads anyway is this rather alarming little statement.
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.
Whut?  I need to watch what I say in my own house?  I can't talk about "personal or other sensitive" things in my own living room?  And how many people have a TV in their bedroom? Does it have cameras to watch me - so it will recognize faces and which programs they like?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume most people know Apple's Siri "digital assistant".  To invoke Siri, you need to take a positive action.  The default is to press a large button and hold it until you get a tone that acknowledges the app is now running.  Now Siri doesn't live entirely on the iPhone.  Once you've engaged the app and asked a question, Siri can connect with servers online to help interpret your speech.  Still, if you don't press the button, Siri never turns on and never listens. 

Samsung's TV is the opposite of that.  Their usage model centers on you speaking commands to the TV.  If you're just going to command it, speaking in your best Jean Luc Picard voice, "TV, change to channel 1035", it has to be listening all the time.  It has to actually be continuously parsing what everyone it can hear is saying and deciding if it's a command or not.  If you yell "turn off that noise" to your kids in the other room, it has to decide what that means, and whether or not it needs to respond.  Samsung says that the microphone in the TV only responds to simple commands and does not pipe the speech out over the Internet.  

The use of the "third party" to process speech only happens when you press a button on the remote, perhaps asking the TV to recommend a movie (I don't know about you, but I always think about asking my TV what it thinks).  Since you're pressing a button, it is similar to how Siri and Google Now work on smartphones.  No button press; no threat of eavesdropping.  Says Samsung.  Users will see a microphone icon on the screen when it is on.  Samsung says it's easy to cope with this if you don't want a voice activated TV (then why did you buy one?) by going into the Settings and disabling it.  Then they say,
"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,"
And, of course, if you turn off the voice activation features, those features you paid for aren't going to be working.  I suppose collecting usage data isn't that bad, especially if anonymized.  It's probably data that doesn't cross over into the extremely personal category.

The problem is Samsung really stepped in it.  They put in a bunch of features they thought people will want in a TV and then weren't really up front about sending much of what the TV hears to a remote processor.  When people were upset about it, it was as much how they found out as it was the actual discovery.  Samsung could only say they use "industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers’ personal information and prevent unauthorized collection or use", but now it's a question of whether or not you truly believe them. 

Besides, didn't Anthem and Sony and all the other cyber attack victims use "industry-standard security safeguards and practices"?


  1. I'm beginning to wonder about Samsung. I had to replace my 2.5 year-old Samsung fridge 6 months ago when a power fluctuation killed the main PC board and that board was not available as a replacement part. Anywhere. (When the selling dealer said "no can fix" I was told that "some Korean manufacturers" stop producing parts early in the life cycle of some products.)

    Now I see Samsung is selling NSA-endorsed televisions....

  2. Helluva opportunity for an American company to make a TV guaran-damn-teed to not spy on you.

    Get Sam Elliott to do the commercials

  3. "but now it's a question of whether or not you truly believe them."

    Heh. No.

  4. Samsung is not the first or the only one with this issue.

    MOST of the "SmartTV" sets do this or something similar. Ditto for xbox with Kinect.

    It pays to remember that with ALL of these "free" services, if you are not paying for the product, YOU ARE THE PRODUCT.


  5. A lot of the tech that is applied to everyday items is problematic. My gas stove is electric! If power goes out I cannot use it. It has at least two electric tech devices in it to shut off the gas even when I have electricity but when the electric is off the default position of that gas valve is off. I wish the gas stove had no computer chip and no electronics at all.
    My coffemaker has a computer chip too. If it was up to me the damn thing would flash 12:00 all the time but my wife can't stand it so she sets the clock. But it shuts off automatically after two hours. This equals the last cup being cold. My old coffee maker that only made coffee (i.e. it didn't tell me the time, couldn't be set to start itself and I needed to shut it off) was better. I always pulled the plug after the last cup. My lap top has a built in camera. As soon as I got it I covered the camera with a piece of electrician tape. My new camera will automatically upload my pictures to a wi-fi device. I think it will do it in real time if you are close to the device when you snap the picture. With my mistrust of wifi I of course shut that option off (I hope). The list of smart devices is long but why? Why can't I buy the dumb ones anymore?

  6. I hate to break this to you, sepulvedasrevenge, but if any American manufacturer is stupid enough to even TRY something such as that, the FedPig swill will make them rue the day. Non-American companies have a FAR better chance of doing such a thing without severe punishment.

  7. OK Mark Matis how about an American made clothing line that features a privacy pocket for your phone? It's like a tinfoil hat for your phone!

    The biggest obstacle to any of these products is not the FedPig swill but rather America's ability to manufacture a decent product at a competitive price point.

  8. The biggest obstacle to what YOU suggested is indeed the FedPig swill. And you can make your OWN faraday cage from aluminum foil and duct tape. But then surely there's no need to do so since your "Law Enforcement" buddies would never do anything untoward.

  9. It's not what Samsung will do with the data. It's what hackers or .gov will do with it.

  10. Err, iirc Siri has a setting to detect AC power and respond to voice any time the iDevice is plugged in. Will have to dig through settings to find it but I'm pretty sure it was a feature of the 8.1 update Boyd K