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Samsung Smart TVs Allegedly 'Spy' on Private Conversations Thanks to Privacy Policy

( [email protected] ) Feb 09, 2015 11:52 AM EST

Samsung Smart TV Privacy Policy
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Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung may be a forward-looking company thanks to its efforts of integrating its products under the "Internet of things," but now it's come under fire for its privacy policy on its smart television sets.

The smart television sets, which can connect to the Internet, have a voice-recognition feature that allows viewers to control the options by talking to it instead of mashing buttons on a remote control. However, Natasha Lomas of TechCrunch reported that thanks to Samsung's supplementary privacy policy on smart TVs, the potential privacy intrusion can be quite massive.

"You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands," the policy read. "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."

Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins pointed out on Twitter the eerie similarity between the language used by Samsung's privacy policy and the text in George Orwell's book "1984." Lomas noted that many smart TVs required users to agree to have their data sent back to TV manufacturers as a condition for accessing the "smart" services; that data is usually shared with advertisers and others.

"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," Lomas wrote. "Creepy, tech-fueled privacy concerns are rarely detailed as clearly as that, so full marks to Samsung for clarity."

Shane Harris of The Daily Beast reported that based on his assessment of the privacy policy, it seemed that Samsung only collected voice commands "mostly to improve the TV's performance." While Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agreed with that view, she expressed concerns on who else would get that information.

"If I were the customer, I might like to know who that third party was, and I'd definitely like to know whether my words were being transmitted in a secure form," McSherry said.

Harris warned that if the transmission lacked encryption, "a SmartHacker could conceivably turn your TV into an eavesdropping device."

"Samsung may just be giving itself some wiggle room as the service evolves, but that language could be interpreted pretty broadly," McSherry said.

In its defense, Samsung sent a statement to TechCrunch that addressed the privacy concerns brought up in its policy.

"In all of our Smart TVs we employ industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers' personal information and prevent unauthorized collection or use," Samsung wrote.

Samsung added that it "does not retain voice data or sell it to third parties." The company also explained how the voice command feature worked on its smart TVs.

"If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search," Samsung wrote. "At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV."

Samsung also stated that owners of its smart TVs can turn off that function by disconnecting the TV from the Wi-Fi network.

Lomas contended that as more objects get connected to the Internet, boundaries need to be set on what is considered acceptable, lest consumers lose their trust in companies such as Samsung.

"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," Lomas wrote.

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