A Very Slippery Slope: Yes, Your Samsung Smart TV Can Listen To Your Private Conversations
“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.”
Naturally, this has freaked people out and led to multiple comparisons to 1984 and the ubiquitous Big Brother. It was framed exceptionally well by EFF activist Parker Higgins in the following tweet:
But, said McSherry, “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.” If the transmission is not encrypted, a SmartHacker could conceivably turn your TV into an eavesdropping device.
After reading this, I have two concerns. First, there’s the point outlined by McSherry about the vulnerability to hackers. So even if we can be assured that Samsung and the third party isn’t up to anything nasty, is the entire process secure enough to protect ourselves from hackers, or an intelligence agency like the NSA? I have my doubts.
Beyond this, there is an equally important concern regarding how this trend might progress into the future, and how it will future erode personal privacy if we don’t address it now.
Take Facebook for example. In its early days it was a seemingly benign, efficient and enjoyable way to stay in touch with friends and reconnect with olds ones. It lured in over a billion users and then essentially decided to turn on all of them without really ever letting anyone know in order to make an incredible amount of money. I’ve discussed some examples of this on Liberty Blitzkrieg on many occasions (links at the end), but most recently I highlighted an incredibly important and powerful article by Salim Varani, in the post: A Very Disturbing and Powerful Post – “Get Your Loved Ones Off Facebook”. Here’s an excerpt:
Facebook doesn’t keep any of your data safe or anonymous, no matter how much you lock down your privacy settings. Those are all a decoy. There are very serious privacy breaches, like selling your product endorsement to advertisers and politicians, tracking everything you read on the internet, or using data from your friends to learn private things about you – they have no off switch.
Facebook’s blocks posts based on political content it doesn’t like. They blocked posts about Fergusson and other political protests. When Zuckerberg alledgedly went a bit nuts and banned the word “privacy” from meetings at Facebook, it was also blocked from any Facebook post. You just got an error message about “inappropriate content”. Yeah, uh huh. Inappropriate for who?
If you’ve ever used Facebook contact sync, or used Facebook on your mobile phone, Facebook took your complete contact list. Real names, phone numbers, addresses, emails, everything. They then use that to create “shadow profiles” of the people you know who aren’t on Facebook. Non Facebook users often see this in action, in the form of emails to them from Facebook, containing their personal information. Facebook users can see this when they upload a picture of a non-Facebook user, and they’re automatically tagged. My friend’s not on Facebook, but since me and a few friends used Facebook on our phones, Facebook has his name and contact information, plus knows who his friends are because it sees him in their address book and calling records.
That’s even scarier because Facebook is used heavily for political advertising, and product endorsements. People know I raised money for kids with cancer before, so they might not be surprised if they see an ad where I’m endorsing a Christian outreach programme poor kids in Africa. But I categorically only support programmes that don’t have religious allegiances, since they’re known to bias their support to people who convert. Worse, a lot of people might assume things about my religious beliefs based on these false endorsements. Don’t even get me started on all the hypey startup stuff I don’t condone!
Bet you didn’t think that this is what Facebook would become when you first joined, did you? But this is indeed what it has become, and now that you’re hooked you can cut the cord. Like with drug dealers, “the first one’s always free.” If you haven’t read Salim’s article in full, I strongly suggest you do.
Now back to the original Daily Beast article for some more thoughts on the matter…
McSherry called that bit of qualifying language “worrisome.”
“Samsung may just be giving itself some wiggle room as the service evolves, but that language could be interpreted pretty broadly,” she said.
This is my key concern. Although it might be completely benign right now, that in no way, shape or form means it will remain that way. In fact, once everyone is hooked on SmartTVs and forgets about this whole hubbub, these companies could eagerly turn around and sell all of your private conversation details to advertisers or worse. By then, it might be too late for you to let go.