Is Your TV Spying on You?

July 22, 2015

Data privacyIn recent years, increasing numbers of household electronics, including televisions and gaming consoles, respond to voice commands and gestures. These features are popular for good reason – smart televisions will turn on and change channels in response to your voice, and gaming consoles can recognize your gestures – no need to keep track of those pesky remotes!  But have we been giving up more information than we expected in exchange for this convenience?

Samsung recently made headlines for its SmartTV security policy, which stated that “Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands,” and warned users that if “spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.”  Samsung responded to the resulting furor, much of it comparing their televisions to George Orwell’s novel 1984, stating that it takes consumer privacy “very seriously,” and that it does not retain voice data or sell the captured audio.  Samsung has since removed this language from its privacy policy, which now states that “Samsung will collect your interactive voice commands only when you make a specific search request to the Smart TV by clicking the activation button either on the remote control or on your screen and speaking into the microphone on the remote control.”

Spy TV CopyMicrosoft’s Xbox Kinect has also had its share of privacy concerns.  Microsoft originally intended to make its Kinect camera mandatory on Xbox One, but reversed its decision following privacy concerns.  Now, use of Kinect is optional.  Also optional is granting Microsoft the ability to record your commands.  According to its privacy policy, “[i]f you give Microsoft permission, we record commands whether you are online or offline.”

Earlier this month, Amazon made Echo, its voice-activated wireless speaker, available to the public. Echo is a device that plays music, and is connected to the internet via a Bluetooth connection.  Users can ask the Echo, which responds to the name “Alexa,” to add items to lists, check items on calendars, and purchase items on Amazon.com.  Because the device is always on (though it may be in sleep mode), it raises privacy concerns, including what it is listening to, and what it does with the data it records.  While users can choose not to provide Amazon with certain information, its privacy policy warns that if they do so, the user “might not be able to take advantage of many of our features.”  Since this product is so new to the market, its privacy implications are not yet clear.

Users can avoid these privacy concerns by deactivating voice commands, or disconnecting their smart televisions from the internet.  However, as consumers purchase these electronics specifically for these features, deactivating them is not a reasonable alternative.  Consumers are thus faced with a trade-off of convenience versus privacy – the convenience of taking advantage of these useful and popular features means giving up a potentially staggering amount of information about themselves.