In Smart TV Land, Eavesdropping is Nothing New

Samsung SmartTV
Terms of service for many smart TVs require omnibus data harvesting, including of voice data.

In-brief: Samsung isn’t alone in asking customers to consent to the collection and transmission of “voice data.” But questions about the ethics and legality of the practice remain. 

“Creepy” is a word that some are using to describe the revelation that Samsung smart televisions are capable of eavesdropping on the conversations that happen around them. According to Samsung’s terms of service for some smart TV models, that the information may be “captured and transmitted to a third party” through voice recognition features built into the set.

But Samsung isn’t the only smart TV vendor to collect such data from users of its televisions – or to demand permission from users to do so. Writing in May, Security Ledger noted nearly identical language in a terms of service agreement for users of LG’s smart TVs.

LG’s terms of service, which were transcribed by UK privacy advocate and IT specialist Jason Huntley, warned that when using voice activation features “if your spoken word includes personal or other sensitive information, such information will be among the Voice Information captured through your use of voice recognition features.”  LG further indicated that voice information is among the information gathered by the device to help improve viewing experiences, understand how customers are using the LG Smart TVs and for marketing and to deliver advertisements.

LG Smart TVs also require users to consent to have voice data collected and sent to "third parties."
LG Smart TVs also require users to consent to have voice data collected and sent to “third parties.”

As with Samsung, customers who do not agree to the collection of voice data cannot use the voice recognition features of the LG Smart TV. More broadly: LG users who do not agree to the LG terms of service cannot use any of the TVs Smart TV features.

Samsung did not respond to a request for comment from Security Ledger prior to publication. In a statement issued to Daily Beast, however, the company said that it “takes consumer privacy very seriously,” and uses encryption to secure consumer data. Customers who don’t wish to have voice data collected can disable the voice recognition feature or disconnect the TV from the Wi-Fi network.”

The larger question may be of policy. Specifically: should companies marketing Internet of Things products be able to make data harvesting a necessary component of using that product. That kind of quid pro quo is common these days, with “freemium” mobile applications and services (Facebook among them) that are built on the assumption that users “are the product.”

However, smart television sets such as those sold by LG and Samsung hardly qualify as “freemium.” In fact, they’re traditional “premium” products. In the case of Samsung: a 40″ “Smart” TV sells for as much as $200 more than the same size TV without the “smart” features.

The stakes are high. An Affinova survey (part of Nielsen) found that a majority of those surveyed worried whether “collected data would be secure and private” Fifty three percent of those surveyed expressed concern about data sharing and 51% about hacking, the survey found.

Speaking to the Consumer Electronics Show in January, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez echoed those concerns, telling attendees that ubiquitous data collection, or the ability of sensors to collect sensitive personal information about consumers all the time and in real-time were a top concern of the agency. If not protected, such data could lead to unexpected and adverse outcomes, such as hacking and heretofore unseen forms of discrimination, such as using individual energy use patterns to set their homeowners’ insurance rates.