Is the TV listening? Voice-activated technology in a post-Snowden world

Connected Life

We’ve had hints of how the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart homes could make our lives easier, more comfortable, and perhaps even more fun for years. I’ve been shouting voice commands at my Xbox since the Christmas of 2013. I already don’t have to pick up the remote — but what if I could interact with any device that plugs in from anywhere?

For older people or people with disabilities IoT could be a real life changer. The elderly may stay on their own in their homes longer as breakthroughs in technology offer the sorts of assistance only offered today in nursing homes.

The potential is limitless but like any new technology that requires intimacy with our personal lives, privacy is a huge concern.

This week the IoT made international headlines for the first time. “Samsung is warning customers about discussing personal information in front of their smart television set,” the BBC reported.

This isn’t actually news. Our Mikko Hypponen tweeted about this issue last year on Halloween:

The tweet linked to a post from Michael Price from The Brennan Center who wrote about his new Smart TV, “You may not be watching, but the telescreen is listening.” While Mikko’s tweet was retweeted several hundred times, it didn’t make news.

What did make news was Shane Harris’ post in the Daily Beast, which called out this line from Samsung’s Privacy Policy, “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.”

EFF activist Parker Higgins noted that this reminded him of the technology in a very famous book:

And the list of third-parties Samsung could share your data with includes their affiliates, anyone who does does business with them, and — of course — law enforcement . As Mikko has said, “Orwell was an optimist.”

The prospect of the exact methods of surveillance of 1984 being employed to share our private conversations with a third-party justifiably raises suspicions.

Some say these suspicions are overblown. “The suggestion that Samsung Smart TVs are ‘always listening is a misnomer, and at the core of all the scuttlebutt” Digital Trends‘ Caleb Denison wrote. He adds, “The information, Samsung assures us, is encrypted in transit and doesn’t get stored.”

We shouldn’t pretend these privacy issues are unique to Smart TVs.

Our Security Advisor Sean Sullivan pointed out the future of Google’s Chrome browser is “always-listening”. Enabling voice searches plus a “few” seconds more could feel pretty creepy too.

The truth is that many of us want our devices to listen and react to us. Voice-activated technology has been a staple of science-fiction and futurism for decades. We just never realized it would be coming about in a post-Snowden world.

Mikko often notes, we’re more honest with search engines than we are with our family. But still our computers and our smartphones are new technologies that have developed in front of faces. We remember what life was like when they didn’t connect and the thrill as dial-up became broadband and connecting to the world became second nature.

The innovations of IoT will be thrilling but they’ll also present new questions about you and your digital footprint.

At F-Secure we take security and privacy very seriously. After all, that is our raison d’etre.

We have a team in place whose job is to make sure that people can truly enjoy the benefits of IoT without being worried about someone hacking into your refrigerator or without being worried about being spied by an Internet connected coffee maker.

What do you think? Are you worried about your TV spying on you? Do the benefits of “smart devices” outweigh the possible threats on security and privacy?

[Image by Daniel Horacio Agostini | via Flickr]

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