Did the FBI Warn That Smart TVs Might Spy on You?

Warnings to consumers about various products often accompany the holiday shopping season.

  • Published 4 December 2019

Claim

The FBI warned that smart TVs can "spy" on their owners.

Origin

Several days before Black Friday 2019, the FBI issued a warning to consumers who either own or may soon own a smart TV — a device connected to the internet that allows viewers to use streaming apps.

In a press release published on Nov. 26, 2019, by the agency’s field office in Portland, Oregon, the agency warned:

A number of the newer TV’s also have built-in cameras. In some cases, the cameras are used for facial recognition so the TV knows who is watching and can suggest programming appropriately. There are also devices coming to market that allow you to video chat with grandma in 42” glory.

Beyond the risk that your TV manufacturer and app developers may be listening and watching you, that television can also be a gateway for hackers to come into your home. A bad cyber actor may not be able to access your locked-down computer directly, but it is possible that your unsecured TV can give him or her an easy way in the backdoor through your router.

Hackers can also take control of your unsecured TV. At the low end of the risk spectrum, they can change channels, play with the volume, and show your kids inappropriate videos. In a worst-case scenario, they can turn on your bedroom TV’s camera and microphone and silently cyberstalk you.

Readers inquired as to whether the warning was authentic, possibly because it sounds like a page from a story about a dystopian future. But the warning is authentic, and the FBI provided a series of tips to help people avoid having their TVs hacked:

  • Know exactly what features your TV has and how to control those features. Do a basic Internet search with your model number and the words “microphone,” “camera,” and “privacy.”
  • Don’t depend on the default security settings. Change passwords if you can – and know how to turn off the microphones, cameras, and collection of personal information if possible. If you can’t turn them off, consider whether you are willing to take the risk of buying that model or using that service.
  • If you can’t turn off a camera but want to, a simple piece of black tape over the camera eye is a back-to-basics option.
  • Check the manufacturer’s ability to update your device with security patches. Can they do this? Have they done it in the past?
  • Check the privacy policy for the TV manufacturer and the streaming services you use. Confirm what data they collect, how they store that data, and what they do with it.
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