Monthly Archives: February 2015

What Happens To Our Privacy When The Internet Is In Everything?


As the number of internet connected devices — also known as the Internet of Things — continues to grow, so too does the number of devices using voice recognition technology as an interface to allow for hands free control.

Last fall, Amazon revealed a connected speaker with a Siri-style assistant named “Echo” that can perform tasks like adding items to your ecommerce shopping basket on command. At the recent CES conference, Internet connected ‘smart TVs’ which let couch-potatoes channel-hop by talking at their screen, rather than pushing the buttons of a physical remote control are now even more common. It’s clear that the consumer electronics of our future will include more devices with embedded ears that can hear what their owners are saying. And, behind those ears, the server-side brains to data-mine our conversations for advertising intelligence.

The potential privacy intrusion of voice-activated services is massive. Samsung, which makes a series of Internet connected TVs, has a supplementary privacy policy covering its Smart TVs which includes the following section on voice recognition:

“You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands. If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. 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. In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. 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 od Voice Recognition.”

This Samsung example is just the latest privacy-related concern involving SmartTVs — many of which routinely require users to agree to having their viewing data sent back to the TV maker and shared by them with advertisers and others simply in order for them to gain access to the service. The clarity of wording in Samsung’s privacy policy is unique — given that it amounts to warning users not to talk about private stuff in front of your TV screen because multiple unknown entities can listen in.

Creepy is an understatement here. As usual, these “Privacy Policy” warnings are contained within the most often overlooked type of document on the Internet so will easily go unnoticed by the average user.

If the SmartTV owner realizes how ridiculous this is, Samsung does at least allow them to disable the eavesdropping voice recognition ‘feature’, and instead use a more limited set of predefined ‘voice commands’ — and in that instance says it does not harvest their spoken words.

However it will still gather usage info and any other text-based inputs for data mining purposes, as it also notes further down in the policy. So an entire opt-out of being tracked is not part of this very expensive package.

If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands. While Samsung will not collect your spoken word, they may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it.

Samsung states: “You may disable Voice Recognition data collection at any time by visiting the “settings” menu. However, this may prevent you from using all of the Voice Recognition features.”

An Internet connected TV that eavesdrops on the stuff you say when you’re sitting on the sofa or watching TV in bed is just the latest overreaching privacy intrusion to come to light for consumers. As technology continues its ever onward march, it’s unlikely to be the worst, and certainly won’t be the last. As more smart devices are deployed in our homes, cars and lives are networked and brought online, and given the technical ability to snoop on us — there is a growing imperative to clean up the darker corners of the digital commerce environment. As consumers we need to insist on setting some boundaries on what is and is not acceptable. Just last month the FTC even warned us of the huge security risks in the Internet of Things.

What happens to our privacy when the Internet is in everything? When all the technological things in your home have networked ears that are fine-tuned for commercial intelligence gathering, where will you go to talk about “personal” or “sensitive” stuff?

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