Shhh, your TV is listening

Everybody knows there are things you just don’t discuss in public. Or in front of the kids. Or with your boss. Today, though, it’s not only people that we should be wary of when we talk about sensitive and important matters.

With IoT playing an ever increasing role in people’s lives, more and more of the things we surround ourselves with are connected. Smart devices can communicate with each other, collect information about us and send it over to the Cloud.

In theory it’s all benign. All this information is supposed to help machines understand us so they can serve us better. But the privacy and security implications are huge. Some of the devices listening in on our conversations have poor security, which means they can be hacked by criminals and privacy snoopers. There have been cases when manufacturers surreptitiously gathered viewer data and sold information about consumer habits to third parties.

Smart speakers and AI assistants like Amazon Echo/Alexa and Google Home/Google Assistant are of course listening to everything we say unless we mute their microphone, but as we explained in another post they will only send the info to their cloud-based brains after we use an activation word or phrase such as ‘Alexa’ or ‘OK Google’. Moreover, the transmissions are encrypted.

However, some experts warn that even such devices from companies that do take security seriously should not be seen as completely risk-free. After all, they do record your words and keep your data somewhere in the cloud, so you can never be a hundred percent sure it’s never going to be leaked.

Just around the time when TV maker Vizio was getting fined for spying on consumers, electronics giant Samsung was issuing a warning about its own smart television sets. Basically the message was, Don’t discuss personal information in front of the TV if you don’t want it to end up on the servers of a third party. When users turn on voice activation, what they say is picked up by their Samsung smart TV and sent over to a company that translates speech to text.

Know what your smart devices do

The company in question is called Nuance, the firm behind Siri’s language processing. Nuance also provides voice recognition technology for the now infamous My Friend Cayla toy, a talking doll that can easily be hacked to spy on children, according to consumer groups in several countries.

But that wasn’t Nuance’s fault. Such tech companies are crucial in the development of IoT, as they allow smart device manufacturers to include awesome features that until a few years ago we could only see in sci-fi movies. So if you like having a TV that you can control with your voice, that’s cool. Just be aware that not all IoT companies take your security and privacy as seriously as they should, and that not all device manufacturers will tell you clearly what kind of information they collect from you and what they do with it. This means it’s up to know what your smart devices can do and to make sure you don’t give away more information about yourself than you’d like to.


One comment

  • By Kamela Spivey - Reply

    Folks, this is scary!! Yes, we have amazing advances in our technology, but at a price we have yet to determine. The possibilities and ramifications of all this is beyond description…

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