Is Your TV Watching You?

Adam-Rouseby Adam Rouse

In Star Trek space explorers of the future talk to their spaceship’s computer to easily control nearly every function on the ship. Now, you can control your TV simply by talking to it.  Smart TV manufacturers are now integrating voice control and motion sensing controls into their products.  Simply tell your TV what you want to watch and the TV will tune in for you; make a downward motion with your hand and the TV will mute the sound.  Smart TVs can even learn your tastes and recommend shows when asked: “What should I watch tonight?”  With nearly 30% of American households projected to have a smart, internet connected, TV by the end of 2015, the ability for your home entertainment products to listen to you may raise some concerns: How is your TV able to listen to you? Can you tell when it is listening and not listening? And, most importantly, what does your TV do with all the information it hears that is not relevant to helping you find entertainment to watch?

As to the how, there are small sensitive microphones located in a smart TV and its remote control.  Presumably these devices are only listening to you when the TV is on, however there is no way to really determine when these devices turn on the microphones and eavesdrop on their users.  Samsung states that there is a microphone icon that appears on the TV screen when the device is set to a listening mode.  Samsung, in their global privacy policy, also warns: “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.”

Many media outlets have reported smart TV’s transmission of voice data to a third party is unsettling and intrusive.  Voice recognition is a computationally heavy task that is usually best performed by specialized computing devices.  The computer inside of the TV simply does not have the required capabilities to perform speech to text translation without offloading the processing to a more powerful computer, usually in a data center.  Because smart TV manufacturers do not have the necessary computers needed for voice recognition, the transmission of a user’s spoken words to a third-party is essential to convert spoken words to commands the smart TV understands.  Anyone who has used Apple’s Siri digital assistant or Android’s “OK Google” voice features has had their voice samples transmitted over the internet for processing in a specialized data center.  While Google chose to keep its voice processing in house, Apple transmits voice queues spoken to Siri to Nuance – the same company that Samsung has chosen to use to process voice commands spoken to its TVs.  Samsung has released a statement expressing that it adheres to industry standard encryption and data protection standards to protect its customers.  Even so, it is probably best to avoid discussing finances, medical conditions, or other highly personal data while a smart TV is listening for a voice command.

The genuinely alarming issue with smart TVs in the homes of consumers is the potential security risk involved in having an internet-connected device with a camera and microphone, capable of taking video and recording audio without the user’s consent.  Proof-of-concept hacks allowed security researchers to take over smart TVs and use them like a very expensive webcam.  CK Privacy has published a paper on the dangers of webcams and remote access technology.  The same dangers apply to smart TVs and other voice-controlled entertainment systems.  With most interconnected devices the end user has some control over the security of the device by being able to set a password, update the device with new security patches, or place them behind a home firewall.  Smart TVs were not designed to be accessed remotely by the home user thus there is no way to set passwords or increase security without reliance on the manufacturer who produced the device to provide an update.  Not only must the manufacturer produce an update, but the average consumer must know about and install the update for it to be of any use.  Consumers must give feedback to the smart TV manufacturers demanding they fix the smart systems to be secure and to also encrypt their voice recording data that is required to be transmitted to Nuance or another third party for processing.

You can help protect yourself by ensuring that you have the latest firmware for your device:

  • Samsung owners can find the latest firmware for their smart TV here.
  • LG owners can find information about firmware and software updates here.
  • Sharp owners can download firmware updates here.
  • Sony owners can find information regarding firmware updates from Sony Support here.

Of course, a Post-it note placed strategically and securely over the camera on the TV and a thick piece of masking tape with some felt or other audio-dampening material over the microphone works just as well to stop prying eyes and ears.  It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing solution, but it is a definitive way to control what the camera and microphone see and hear.  Blinding and deafening your smart TV may reduce your chances of being overheard, but then again, it also eliminates all the advantages of voice and motion control.  Once again, consumers are going to have to research the manufacturers and purchase wisely or disable many of the features that make their TV smart in the first place.

This post originally appeared on (archived link)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *