Samsung have not had a good few weeks. This stems from a couple of concerns with its range of Smart TVs. You may have seen some of the various sensational headlines floating around the web claiming “Samsung are Spying on You!” and “Samsung Smart TV policy allows company to listen in on users” (not to mention accusations of inserting unwanted ads into users’ viewing experience). As well as being utterly terrifying, it’s not actually completely true…
A suspiciously worded paragraph in the TV’s privacy T&C’s sparked outrage and paranoia that Samsung were listening in on private conversations. The text in question says:
"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”.
The implication is that any of your private conversations can be recorded sent off to this ominous “Third Party” for them to have their wicked way with. The reality, however, is that your words are only recorded once you say the trigger phrase such as “Hi TV”. A tone will sound and a large microphone icon will appear on-screen to signify the TV is listening, and only then will it record your speech. The “Third Party” simply refers to the way in which Samsung processes your speech data, rather than advertisers or data miners. Digital Trends summarise the real meaning behind these T&C’s in a great blog post.
Let’s not forget that a host of devices already do something similar. The “Hey Siri” feature on the iPhone provides almost exactly the same service when plugged in as the Samsung Smart TV. Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are extremely similar too. Mashable look in depth at how other devices “listen” to you and discuss exactly what happens to your data. In the current climate of mistrust of big companies’ handling of privacy, perhaps we are becoming a little oversensitive.
The fact is, these types of features are extremely useful. When Siri was first introduced by Apple, we spoke about the potential for Siri to be “always listening”. Neill Birchenall said:
“If she could listen (and speak) freely, she could also remind me about that TV programme I wanted to watch 10 minutes before it was due to start, she could put some music on to help pass the time, she could read me some emails and take down a few quick replies. She could have done all of this and more, but only if she could listen.”
The opportunity is there for Siri to talk back and be constantly recording, if you so choose. This of course has its uses and, battery and storage permitting, would truly provide a hands-free, time saving experience. However, this is undoubtedly a privacy stickler’s nightmare and if you are concerned about your data and where it goes once it’s been surrendered to your devices, an “always listening” device may not be for you.
Location, Location, Location
There are lots of different ways that your data is recorded and utilised and its becoming increasingly difficult to use devices without trading your information for usability. While not strictly “listening”, devices, especially phones, are constantly monitoring your behaviour both online and offline, and this can be difficult to circumnavigate.
Privacy settings are often buried deep in complex menus and altering them or turning them off can be counterintuitive. What’s more, changing your privacy settings can actually hinder the potential of your device. For instance, some apps and features of your phone are unavailable if your turn off your GPS or location services. You may not want your phone recording your every move, but if you want to do something as basic as taking a photo you may, at some point, have to activate your device’s GPS settings.
The Guardian highlighted a number of ways that your “tech is spying on you”, and how to get around giving up your privacy in order to use certain features of services. The vast majority of smartphones automatically attribute metadata such as time, location (geotagging) etc. to any photos taken. If you send an image to someone, they are automatically able to access this data, potentially telling them something that you didn’t want them to know! You can (in some instances) turn this feature off in your phone’s settings, but if you upload these images to social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, the metadata is automatically stripped.
Even if you do manage to shut off location services, your location and movement can still be tracked using the cell signal from your phone. Your phone automatically and constantly “checks in” with nearby phone masts and any tower that your phone pings is recorded and can be reviewed. There is no way to circumvent this, other than by choosing not to have a mobile phone!
Orwell That Ends Well
We are reaching a stage where total privacy when using technology is impossible. Your data is traded off in order to be able to use your devices to their full potential. That said, a lot of the language used to talk about privacy and technology is over the top. Words like “spying” and “listening” imply a much more sinister motive than simply trying to provide a better service.
While it’s true that companies like Facebook and Google make money off of our personal information, there are many companies that go to great lengths to encrypt and protect our data. It is unhelpful when tech companies refer to “third parties”, as this vague definition allows the company to pass on your data to practically anybody, who can then do whatever they like with it.
Tighter controls and a better understanding of privacy is certainly needed, but we aren’t quite at the stage of Big Brother style spying just yet.