How smart are you?

How smart are you?

So, it seems that the room we have for our privacy to bloom is getting smaller and smaller. We already knew that being at home did not automatically imply seclusion. Still, nosy neighbours were, for quite a long time, the only enemies of home privacy.

However, thicker walls and darker window blinds no longer protect us from external snooping as, nowadays, the enemy seems to hide in our living room or even bedroom.

Indeed, it seems that when we bought our super duper and very expensive Smart TV, we actually may have brought to our home a very sneaky and effective – although apparently innocent – spy.

As you may (or may not) already know, TV with Internet connectivity allow for the collection of its users’ data, including voice recognition and viewing habits. A few days ago many people would praise those capabilities, as the voice recognition feature is applied to our convenience, i.e., to improve the TV’s response to our voice commands and the collection of data is intended to provide a customized and more comfortable experience. Currently, I seriously doubt that most of us do look at our TV screens the same way.

To start with, there was the realization that usage information, such as our favourite programs and online behaviour, and other not intended/expected to be collected information, are in fact collected by LG Smart TV in order to present targeting ads. And this happens even if the user actually switches off the option of having his data collected to that end. Worse, the data collected even respected external USB hard drive.

More recently, the Samsung Smart TV was also put in the spotlight due to its privacy policy. Someone having attentively read the Samsung Smart TV’s user manual, shared the following excerpt online:

To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. (…)

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.

And people seemed to have abruptly waken up to the realization that this voice recognition feature is not only directed to specific commands in order to allow for a better interaction between an user and the device, as it also may actually involve the capture and recording of personal and sensitive information, considering the conversation taking place nearby. No need to be a techie to know that this does not amount to performance improvement. This is eavesdropping. And to make it worse, the data is transferred to a third-party.

In the aftermath, Samsung has clarified that it did not retain voice data nor sell the audio being collected. It further explained that a microphone icon is visible on the screen when voice activation was turned on and, consequently, no unexpected recording takes place.

Of course you can now be more careful about what you say around your TV. But as users can activate or deactivate this voice recognition feature, my guess is that most will actually prefer to use the old remote control and to keep the TV as dumb as possible. I mean, just the idea of the possibility of private conversations taking place in front of your TV screen being involuntarily recorded is enough motivation.

Also, it should be pointed out that, considering the personal data at stake (relating to an identified or identifiable person) involved, there are very relevant data protection concerns regarding these situations. Can it simply be accepted that the user has consented to the Terms and Conditions on the TV acquired? Were these very significant terms made clear at any point? It is quite certain that there users could not have foreseen, at the time of the purchase, that such deep and extended collection would actually take place. And if so, such consent cannot be considered to have been freely given. It suffices to think that the features used for the collection of data are what make the TV smart in the first place and, therefore, the main reason for buying the product. Moreover, is this collection strictly necessary to the pretended service to be provided? When the data at stake involves data from other devices or other wording than the voice commands, the answer cannot be positive. And the transmission of personal data to third parties only makes all this worse as it is not specified under what conditions data is transmitted to a third party or who that third party actually is. Adding to this, if we consider that these settings mostly come by default, they are certainly not privacy-friendly and amount to stealthily monitoring. Last but not the least, it still remains to be seen if the proper data anonymisation/pseudinonymisation techniques are effectively put in place.

Nevertheless, these situations brought back into the spotlight the risks to privacy associated with personal devices in the Internet of Things era. As smart devices are more and more present in our households, we are smoothly loosing privacy or, at least, our privacy faces greater risks. In fact, it is quite difficult to live nowadays without these technologies which undoubtedly make our lives so much more comfortable and easier. It is time for people to realize that all this convenience comes with a cost. And an high one.