The introduction of “smart TVs” (televisions with Internet connectivity and native apps) has enabled consumers to streamline a number of their viewing habits due to out-of-the-box functionality features such as Netflix and Hulu. But as televisions became increasingly “smart,” consumers have also begun to fret over just how capable the devices truly are of intuiting (and recording) their wants, needs, and other general personal data.
In February 2015, Samsung’s smart TVs became the focus of privacy concerns after language from a television’s user manual was widely shared online. Like the end user license agreements or terms and conditions of a number of personal electronic devices, the Samsung TV manual was largely skimmed or ignored by consumers until the specific portion in question was highlighted and shared across the web:
You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands.
If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you.
In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features.
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.
Those concerns were not novel, as a well-circulated piece on Salon in October 2014 aired the same suspicions about smart TVs. Michael Price, an attorney at New York University’s Brennan Center, warned:
More troubling is the microphone. The TV boasts a “voice recognition” feature that allows viewers to control the screen with voice commands. But the service comes with a rather ominous warning: “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.: Got that? Don’t say personal or sensitive stuff in front of the TV.
You may not be watching, but the telescreen is listening.
I do not doubt that this data is important to providing customized content and convenience, but it is also incredibly personal, constitutionally protected information that should not be for sale to advertisers and should require a warrant for law enforcement to access.
The concerns closely echoed similar objections raised by former NSA security contractor Edward Snowden during a May 2014 interview with NBC anchor Brian Williams. During that interview, Snowden explained how personal devices such as smartphones could be used by third parties to both covertly record conversations and cull a larger pool of metadata to reveal the “pattern of life” of any given user:
They can absolutely turn them on with the power turned off to the device. That’s pretty scary but the thing about the Rangers game is also scary. You might say: does anybody really care that I’m looking up the score for the Rangers game? Well, a government or a hacker or some other nefarious individual would say yes, they’re very interested in that, because that tells a lot about you. First off, it tells you probably speak English, it says you’re probably an American, you’re interested in this sport. And they might know what your habits are? Where were you when the world when you checked the score? Did you check it when you travel or did you check it when you’re just at home?
They’d be able to tell something called your pattern of life: when are you doing these kind activities? When do you wake up, when do you go to sleep? What other phones are around you when you wake up and go to sleep? Are you with someone who’s not your wife? Are you doing something? Are you someplace you shouldn’t be? According to the government, which is arbitrary. Are you engaged in any kind of activities that we disapprove of, even if they aren’t technically illegal. And all these things can raise your level of scrutiny, even if it seems entirely innocent to you even if you have nothing to hide, even if you doing nothing wrong. These activities can be misconstrued, misinterpreted, and used to harm you as an individual even without the government having any intent to do you wrong. The problem is that the capabilities themselves, are unregulated uncontrolled and dangerous.
It’s fairly clear a growing number of common household devices (including smartphones, smart TVs, and other personal electronics) possess the capability to both record and transmit personal data to companies and may be intercepted by local or federal agencies. Snowden raised concerns involving the collection of metadata, a catch-all term used to describe the patterns and detritus of a user’s daily life collected inadvertently by such devices. At issue is to what degree consumer electronic companies are actively collecting, selling, or releasing such information to third parties (such as law enforcement agencies, the government, or advertisers).
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.
Voice recognition, which allows the user to control the TV using voice commands, is a SamsungSmart TV feature, which can be activated or deactivated by the user. The TV owner can also disconnect the TV from the Wi-Fi network. Should consumers enable the voice recognition capability, the voice data consists of TV commands, or search sentences, only. Users can easily recognize if the voice recognition feature is activated because a microphone icon appears on the screen.
Samsung does not retain voice data or sell it to third parties. If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. 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.
Ultimately, devices such as smart TVs and smartphones are capable of recording voice data (even without the end user’s knowledge or consent). However, the language highlighted in the manual (quoted above) that caused concern among consumers pertained solely to the capture of conversations recorded while voice recognition features were engaged via user initiation. Samsung has issued a SmartTV Supplement that expands on its original user’s manual:
You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands.
If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. 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.
If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands. 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.
You may disable Voice Recognition data collection at any time by visiting the “settings” menu. However, this may prevent you from using all of the Voice Recognition features.
Interest in Samsung Smart TV listening capabilities was renewed in February 2016 when many social media users shared items about Samsung’s purported admission that the devices were listening (or a supposed warning not to discuss personal information in front of them):
However, these commonly shared articles were either recycled items from February 2015 or cited material published in February 2015. No updates or additional information occurred between the original controversy and renewed interest in it in 2016.