DEVELOPING: Samsung using Smart TVs to spy?

The internet is abuzz today with news that Samsung’s smart TVs with voice recognition have been actively spying on you and that you can’t stop them. That’s a bit of an oversimplification but it’s really not that far off the truth. Several news sources (including CNN) have raised concerns that Samsung’s voice recognition feature is sending every word you say to third parties for decoding, storage, and future marketing purposes. In fact, even when voice recognition is completely off it appears that it’s not completely, completely off. The system is still listening for certain words and analyzing how many times you say those words in front of the TV.

This is something we’ve been worrying about at The Solid Signal Blog for a while now, and it was the subject of an article that has since been lost that was mostly focused on the cameras built into smart TVs. Voice recognition has always been a bit of a concern and at this point your phone and tablet may be set up for always-on voice recognition without you even realize it. (To test this, say “Hey Siri” or “OK Google” in front of your phone and then ask it a question.)

Now it seems that Samsung may have a growing PR nightmare on its hands for even though they do clearly put the information in their terms and conditions, let’s be honest… no one reads them. Now there’s a reminder that pretty much any technology that can be used to help us can also be used to spy on us, and that we’re willingly allowing that tech to take over. For now the information that Samsung is gathering isn’t being used for evil purposes, but how long will it be until the government uses it to spy on us? Let’s face facts we all know they do a lot of spying on us already. How long until those servers are hacked and someone devises a clever method for searching for your passwords or bank numbers using only the conversations you’ve had?

The scariest part at this time is that it seems that voice recognition on these TVs is impossible to turn off. Presumably, a bit of super glue in the microphone hole would do a lot to mute the sound, but really the only answer that seems 100% effective is physically disconnecting the microphone, which probably involves voiding the warranty. That’s a lose-lose situation.

In the meantime this is a wakeup call to all those folks with any piece of consumer electronics with an always-on voice recognition mode, or indeed any device with a cellular or Wi-Fi radio. Remember that these devices are extremely easy to track, and if you’ve opted into the “Find my Phone” functionality available on Apple and Android devices then you’ve also given the OS manufacturer the right to gather and store your location information. That may seem harmless but as we’ve already told you it’s very easy for the government to get to that information.

Remember, the decision to participate in any of these tracking programs is yours and yours alone. If you have a Samsung TV or any device that’s listening to you, it’s your decision whether or not to use it. Just remember that if you don’t… unplug it and drain the batteries. Otherwise you can’t be sure it’s not still listening.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.