Samsung’s SmartTV foreshadows Internet of Things eavesdropping

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(Editor’s note: Samsung last week scrambled to tweak its privacy policy notifying users of the capacity of microphones embedded in its SmartTV service to eavesdrop on everyday chatter in users’ living rooms. )

By Bob Sullivan, ThirdCertainty

As a leader of the oft-paranoid-sounding-privacy-sensitive crowd, let me be the first to congratulate Samsung for its honesty. Samsung’s new privacy policy explains that the SmartTV uses voice recognition to let owners change the channel and do other cool things, and naturally the TV has to “watch you.” Its privacy policy states:

“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.”

Am I just being paranoid, or do you also dislike the idea of your living room chatter being recorded and sent off to unknown “third parties?” Don’t answer that.

In truth, this is just lawyer speak. Samsung and its partners don’t want to hear about your Aunt Ethel’s health problems, and they don’t want to listen in on your makeout sessions. Really, I believe that. A very responsible lawyer forced the firm to include that disclosure in the interest of completeness. It sounds worse than it is. Until, it isn’t.

Recall that every record stored in any computer anywhere can be obtained by law enforcement, or really anyone acting on behalf of a court of law. The FBI can simply ask Samsung, or its “third-party” suppliers, and obtain records of what happens in your living room. So can folks investigating civil claims, including divorce lawyers. Those makeout sessions would be of plenty of interest to them.

“I totally can see the FBI or others approaching Samsung, probably without thinking there’s any need for a warrant, and saying they were after a ‘bad guy’ and ‘asking’ for that data,” said a former colleague of mine, Steve White, who’s now president of a machine learning technology company, White Marsh Forests.

Legal standing

To be clear, it’s settled law in the U.S. – any information you share with a third party private company can be obtained by law enforcement. You surrender any expectation of privacy once you disclose something to a corporation, or any third party. It’s the biggest end-around in American privacy law.

Don’t blame Samsung for this. It’s just telling the truth. I hope you are now wondering about any other gizmos you have invited into your home that watch you. Smart thermostats? Internet-enabled crock pots? Yup, these things can squeal to anyone about you. They can relate when you come home at night and plenty of other very personal details about your life.

Any technology that watches (or listens) to you creates a record that can be used against you, even if you are in the “privacy” of your own living room. And our living rooms (and bedrooms) are about to be inundated with this stuff under the friendly name of the “Internet of Things.”

The problem is the law. Of course Samsung should be able to see how its technology is working, and be able to learn from real-world uses. We just need to pass laws that make it expressly, unequivocally illegal to use that information for anything other than its intended purpose, and require that it be permanently deleted as soon as that intended purpose is complete.

Notice, I didn’t say the data should be anonymized, because (if you’ve been paying attention), it’s really hard to anonymize data. It needs to be deleted. The privacy of 100 million living rooms shouldn’t be up for grabs so law enforcement might have a slightly easier time catching a criminal every once in a while. That’s not the way America should work.