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.


Posted in Data Privacy, Guest Essays