Is Your TV Listening to You?

I’ve seen a bunch of stories on the wording of Samsung’s privacy statement for their SmartTV.

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

— from Samsung’s SmartTV Privacy Policy

Sure, that’s awfully creepy sounding.   Many people have made the comparison to 1984’s Big Brother, always listening to you.   However, is what it’s actually doing any more creepy than Siri on the iPhone? Or Google Now?  Not really.   In all these cases, the machine, be it your TV or your smartphone, listens to your voice, sends that information to a server somewhere else, processes it on that server, and sends the response back your local device.

So, it’s probably good that they let you know that they’re listening.

According to CNET’s Chris Matyszczyk, Samsung doesn’t retain the information or sell it to third parties, but transfer it for processing purposes.  But Samsung doesn’t actually say that anywhere that a consumer could have seen.   They’ve made their privacy policy (like most) deliberately vague, not actually telling you much useful about how they do anything.

Companies do have good business reasons for doing this.   It’s certainly easier, and if they don’t make specific promises, they can’t get into trouble with the FTC for doing anything different from what is in the privacy policy.  And, if they decide six months from now that they want to sell your info, they can just do that.

What might companies tell you?

  • Are they retaining the information (rather than simply processing it and executing commands)?  If they do retain your information, for  how long?
  • D0 they transfer the info to third parties?  Do they sell it to third parties?
  • Is there any encryption? Or is it all transferred in the clear?
  • How are they monetizing your data?

Practically no company provides this level of information, at least not in their privacy policy.  Apple, for example, makes it hard to find  information on Siri.  Even Siri’s privacy policy is nearly impossible to find.   According to a Wired article from 2013, Apple keeps your Siri data for two years (six months where you’re identifiable plus another 18 months anonymized).

Apparently now Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) requested information from Samsung and LG about their privacy policies and what they do with the voice information they collect.   Franken does have a strong pro-privacy record, but I doubt any actual action will be forthcoming.   It’s up to consumers to press these companies to have clearer privacy policies that actually explain what they do.


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