Shh, the TV's Listening: Voice Is the New Privacy Frontline

Will we soon be whispering around our appliances?

Feb 9 2015, 4:00pm

​Image: Samsung

There's a spy in your living room, listening to what you say—assuming your TV of choice is a smart one from Samsung.

That shouldn't come as a surprise: One of the key features of such televisions is their voice recognition, so the fact it's listening and analysing your speech to save you typing is part of the appeal. However, sharp-eyed readers of Sams​ung's privacy policy noted this line: "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."

Unsurprisingly, critics trotted out the usual "Orwellian" accusations, but in this case the comparison isn't far off. As Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins tweeted, the idea sounds nicked straight from 1984:

But unlike in Winston Smith's world, the voice recognition in Samsung's Smart TVs can be deactivated and, so far at least, the system is only listening for specific commands or search queries, with the company ​saying that voice data is only sent to the cloud to a third party (believed t​o be voice firm Nuance) to be understood and translated to text.

"Because of the challenges present in good quality voice recognition, it will often be the case that data will need to be sent 'into the cloud' for processing and analysis," security expert Graham Cluley told me. "That obviously presents additional privacy challenges over services which can run on a device that is not internet-connected, and performs any processing locally (such as a mouse/keyboard interface)."

While the idea of your TV listening to your running commentary of House of Cards or Fargo may seem more amusing than alarming, as we shift to voice-controlled devices in our living rooms such as smart TVs or Amazon'​s Echo, those additional privacy worries increase.

Paul Bernal, IT and law lecturer at the University of East Anglia, said voice data is currently less intrusive than Google search or geolocation tracking, but that could change as the technology improves. "Remember also things like the Xbox ​One 'heartbeat' monitoring system and motion sensor systems—it is the combination of monitoring and aggregation of data that is the most dangerous of all," he told me.

"Advertisements targeted on what people are talking about in the room seem an obvious and inevitable development"

"One issue that doesn't seem to be talked about much is the integration of data—that is, that this isn't just about private conversations, but the combination of those private conversations with other information, for example what the people are watching on TV at the time they're talking," he added.

"That makes the data more valuable—for example to advertisers—but it also makes it more personal, more revealing, and potentially more dangerous. If you use your 'Smart' TV for other purposes—web browsing, watching YouTube or Netflix etc—the profiling possibilities become even more significant."

While smart TVs are currently using voice for navigation and search, that could change in the future. "Advertisements targeted on what people are talking about in the room seem an obvious and inevitable development," Bernal added.

And all that data piling up about you is inevitably a target for hackers. "I would be surprised if people aren't already working on ways to hack into Smart TV voice monitoring systems—if they haven't already done so," Bernal added. Indeed, researchers at Columbia University last yea​r showed how a man-in-the-middle attack could work against smart TVs, though at the time there was no evidence it had been used by hackers. "And of course the authorities could potentially get access to this data too, whether legitimately or otherwise," said Bernal.

Samsung said it uses "industry-standard security safeguards," including encryption, and that users can turn off the voice command function or disconnect the TV from their wifi, a fact Cluley said Samsung needs to make sure all its customers are aware of—though he'll not be one of them. "Fundamentally, who wants a voice-activated TV anyway?" he said. "Sounds like a ghastly idea to me..."