Is Your TV Watching You?

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print
TV's that listen

Samsung was outed for speech recognition that can "listen" to TV owners and share their words with third parties. Alas, this type of situation is the new normal.

There's no question that the future of computing and automation lies at least partly in voice commands. Apple Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana are revolutionizing the way people interact with phones and other devices.

But it's possible to take the concept too far. Recently, Samsung was outed for introducing speech recognition that can "listen" to TV owners and share their words with undefined third parties.

Smart TV. Dumb executives.

Privacy experts were quick to bash Samsung after reports began circulating about this capability. The details were originally revealed in a story that appeared in The Daily Beast. Samsung buried a sentence about this spying feature deep inside a lengthy and thoroughly byzantine privacy policy and in a Smart TV privacy supplement.

Of course, Samsung responded with the usual blah, blah, blah. In this case, it told CNET: "Samsung takes consumer privacy very seriously. In all of our Smart TVs, we employ industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers' personal information and prevent unauthorized collection or use."

Alas, this type of situation is the new normal. Zealous marketers and complicit corporate attorneys continue to expand the boundaries for data collection, looking for new, ever more creative ways to rake in more money.

Who knows if this was the goal at Samsung? At the very least, it was shortsighted. At the worse, it's intrusive and abusive.

Unfortunately, all of this isn't out of bounds with the current American system of dealing with personal information, which allows businesses to insert third-party cookies, Web beacons and other tracking tools on computing devices without permission. In the European Union, it's opt-in. In the United States, it's opt-out. The American system encourages, if not rewards, aggressive and sometimes abusive behavior.

But, make no mistake: As the abuses stack up, the inevitable backlash is gaining momentum. Samsung could face an FTC probe.

More importantly, President Obama has introduced a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which directly challenges the way businesses use the Internet to track, monitor and monetize consumer data. If passed into law, consumers could view, correct and delete their information that companies hold, while prohibiting businesses from reusing and reselling data without greater transparency.

The bottom line? Businesses continue to behave irresponsibly in the U.S. Whether it's next month or in two years, regulations will arrive in some shape or form. And it may leave more companies than Samsung speechless.

This article was originally published on 2015-03-09

Samuel Greengard, a Baseline contributor, writes about business, technology and other topics. His forthcoming book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press), will be released in the spring of 2015.

eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.