Tag Archives: Privacy

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.


Drones for Law Enforcement — but with what privacy and fourth amendment protections?

Ars Technica reported yesterday on the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) acquisition of two drones.  Of course, use of drones still needs approval from the FAA.   According to the ACSO, “The reason for specifically acquiring this is search and rescue.”  However, according to the ACSO General Order supporting the drone use, search and rescue is the 4th out of 10 uses.   These includes two that are very broad — “post-incident crime scene preservation and documentation” and pretty much anything related to a felony.

Drones can be a good thing.  In fact, for the stated goal, search and rescue, drones can be great.   In comparison to other aerial surveillance options (e.g., helicopters or planes) they’re cheaper and easier to implement.   ACSO says they’re spending $97,000 on this, which is a very little compared to a helicopter.  And training is certainly a lot easier too.

So what should government agencies do when they want to use drones?  The Electronic Frontier Foundation lists three requirements for drone legislation.   While two of these deal with private and commercial use of drones, the third emphasizes the need for law enforcement to get a search warrant when using drones for investigative purposes.  The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office policy, as currently posted, does not require a warrant for any use of drones.  Similarly, the ACLU recommends that the following be included when government organizations implement a drone program.

  • USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
  • DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
  • POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.
  • ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.
  • WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Note that one of these recommendations is that the public actively participates in the  decision to set up a drone program.   However, in Alameda County Sheriff’s Office situation, the Sheriff seems to have excluded critics from the process — EFF and the ACLU of Northern California only found out about the press conference from a story in the newspaper.  And I’d go even further here.   When a government agency sets up any program like this, including drones, surveillance cameras, automatic license plate readers, and so on, the public should be involved, there should be regular (e.g., annual) reviews of such programs, and independent evaluations conducted to determine if these programs are meeting the goals set for them.  This can help eliminate wasteful programs and reduce “mission creep.”

I also want to mention the “public” survey that Sheriff’s office has touted as support for their purchase (given that my day job is actually conducting surveys).  According to the reporting, they did get over three hundred responses.  But this survey clearly suffers from selection bias — the people who responded to the survey aren’t representative of Alameda County residents, but people who attended a “Cop Shop Barbecue” (and paid $12 to do so).

While I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if a significant number of people are okay with unfettered use of drones, the one poll I’m familiar with actually suggest the opposite.   A Monmouth University poll from 2013 (PDF) showed that three-quarters of respondents wanted law enforcement to have to get a search warrant from a judge before using drones versus only 14% think that law enforcement agencies should be able to decide on their own when to use them.