'Spying' on Consumers by Samsung's Smart TVs Bashed by Privacy Experts

When used with their voice recognition features, Samsung Smart TVs "listen" to their owners and then can share spoken words the devices hear with third parties. Not good, say privacy experts.

Samsung listening TV

Samsung's Smart TVs have been getting some damaging publicity this week as reports have circulated about the ability of the televisions to "hear" words spoken in their vicinity by their owners, and then report what it hears to third parties.

That feature was designed into the smart televisions so that they can collect user information about programming preferences and help users locate the shows they are seeking, according to Samsung. It is activated only when Smart TV's owners use its voice recognition feature, which was created to make it easier to operate the television.

The details about the "spying" Smart TVs were revealed Feb. 9 by the BBC in a story that described how Samsung had posted a warning to consumers on its Website about the data reporting characteristics of the devices when used with the voice recognition feature. The original Samsung Webpage told consumers that when the voice activation feature was in use, the TV sets would be able to "'listen' to what is said and may share what they hear with Samsung or third parties."

But that behavior, said several privacy experts interviewed by eWEEK, is potentially invasive and unfair to consumers due to inadequate warnings about the feature.

"These types of devices have the potential to collect a lot of sensitive information about us," Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy for the Center for Democracy & Technology, a privacy and digital rights group. Many devices today have microphones and even cameras that are built in and can capture users and their words and actions, he said. "I think people are starting to be aware that these devices have the potential to monitor them in ways they don't expect or want."

One problem with that in the United States is that there are not a lot of personal privacy laws that can regulate such consumer issues, he said. The nation presently relies today mostly on century-old consumer protection laws that prohibit companies from tricking customers or being deceptive. Those consumer protection laws are still used by the Federal Trade Commission today to protect consumers in privacy cases. Those laws really need to be updated to better guard against new issues that crop up from today's modern technologies, said Brookman.

"I think the FTC is increasingly saying that if you do something that's a surprise, like turn on a Web cam on a device where consumers don't expect it, then that is deceptive and illegal," said Brookman.

Since the first reports surfaced about the "spying" Smart TVs, Samsung has pulled back a bit on the issue and provided consumers with more information about how the feature works and how they can disable it, he said. The fact that it only works with the voice recognition feature is good for consumers because they can shut it off, he added.

Jeffrey T. Child, an associate professor and privacy expert at Kent State University, told eWEEK that the case again illustrates that there is a balance and trade-offs for tech features that consumers might want to use and the personal information they have to give up to get the features.

"The fact that Samsung is selling some of the [collected information] to third party vendors is kind of creepy," said Child. "So, if it hears a lot of talk about football, will you get more football ads on the TV?"

People need to make their own decisions if they want to reveal private information for the sake of technology features, he said. "I think ethically as a company, they're at least letting people know" about the Smart TVs, he said of Samsung. "But it's kind of strange to say 'be careful what you are talking about in front of your TV.' We are not used to that."

To prevent the issue, Child said he recommends that owners of the devices simply shut the voice recognition feature off. "It's not that hard to use the remote," he said.

And if consumers are really angry about features like this one, they should speak with their wallets, he said. "People should, if they are uncomfortable with it, not buy a Samsung TV. We send companies messages that way. There are tons of other TV brands out there" and manufacturers will change their features if consumers walk away.