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Are Samsung TVs really listening to your private conversations?

Barry Collins
9 Feb 2015
A samsung TV
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Samsung warns its smart TVs could be eavesdropping on conversations happening in your living room by using its voice recognition feature

Samsung is at the centre of a privacy storm in a teacup, after the terms and conditions for its smart TVs suggested they were eavesdropping on their owners. Privacy groups have accused Samsung of creating an Orwellian nightmare, after the privacy policy implied the company could tap private conversations.  

"Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with voice recognition features and evaluate and improve the features," Samsung's privacy policy 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."

That (predictably) prompted privacy activist Parker Higgins, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to compare the Samsung Ts & Cs to the telescreens in George Orwell's 1984, which picked up "any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper" and fed it back to the Thought Police. 

So is Samsung secretly working for the state, relaying conversations snatched over Come Dine With Me to MI5 and the FBI? Even forgetting for a moment how ridiculously unlikely it is that a South Korean company has agreed to aid Western intelligence services, it's not the case the television is monitoring every word you say. 

The television may well be listening for the trigger word to activate the voice recognition feature, but only once that word has been spoken does it start analysing what's being said. As Samsung points out in its statement: "Should consumers enable the voice recognition capability, the voice data consists of TV commands or search sentences only. Users can easily recognise if the voice recognition feature is activated because a microphone icon appears on the screen."

So as long as you don't suddenly reveal your terrorist plot or state secrets whilst trying to tell the TV to switch over to Loose Women, it seems pretty unlikely that your privacy's in any grave danger. Not to mention the fact the voice data is encrypted, meaning even wire-tapping spooks are unable to intercept any snippets sent to Samsung or its partners. 

Indeed, Samsung's policy is almost certainly nothing more than legal backside covering, with the company's lawyers simply pointing out that if you happen to gabble personal information at your television with the voice recognition activated, it may well hear it. The same applies to Apple's Siri, or Google Now, or Microsoft's Cortana, or any other voice recognition service that relies on cloud-based transcription.  

In short, it's more likely that you're watching Big Brother, than Big Brother is watching you. 

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