Smart TV? More Like, Spy TV

In 2013, we noted how the TV industry’s push for new revenue streams, in tandem with the migration to IP technology, entangled the industry in some sensitive privacy issues.

Fast forward to 2016 and things have changed—for the worse.

In 2013, it was the integration of pay TV services with social network data that raised concerns. Today, it’s aggressive data harvesting by leading Smart TVs that’s at issue.

The most recent offender is Samsung, the world’s leading supplier of Smart TVs. An astute observer caught some troubling language buried in the company’s privacy policy as it pertained to the company’s voice control functions, which use a consumer’s spoken words to search and navigate the TV menu. “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,” the policy stated. (In case you missed the overtones, the EFF’s Parker Higgins makes the 1984 reference explicit in this tweet.)

The outcry was immediate and Samsung quickly rushed to amend its language and reassure users that their data was encrypted—and besides, they could always disable voice commands and disconnect their TV from a Wi-Fi network if they wanted to keep their conversations private. In other words, in exchange for their privacy, consumers could either render their Smart TV less functional, or simply make them dumb. Some choice.

At the end of last year, a ProPublica investigation revealed how Vizio, the number two TV brand in the U.S., was siphoning and selling huge amounts of viewer data to third parties via its Smart TV platform. Vizio went beyond other Smart TV rivals by auctioning off not just a user’s viewing habits but also access to other devices that connect to a home IP network as well as the gender, age, income and interest data that’s tied to that IP address.

The ProPublica revelations have spurred at least one legal investigation into the company’s practices.

To make matters worse, unlike classic hard-boiled spies who swallow cyanide pills when caught, Smart TVs aren’t guarding your harvested data with their lives. The security firm AVAST hacked a Vizio Smart TV and learned that it could be used to launch attacks on other devices in a home network. Despite vague assurances to the contrary, Samsung’s collected voice data was also found to be insecure.

When it comes to consumer privacy, Smart TV makers are taking the Grace Hopper approach of preferring to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Maybe we really do need an Apple TV.