“Have Your Cake and Eat It Too?”: The Overreaction to the “Eavesdropping” Samsung Smart Television By Jason Malone

 “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too?”: The Overreaction to the “Eavesdropping” Samsung Smart Television

By Jason Malone

Last week, several media outlets reported that Samsung’s smart televisions “eavesdrop” on its owners.[1] Quickly, hysteria broke out among smart television owners about possible breaches of privacy from unknown individuals who were listening to their every word through, of all things, the television. Besides, if one can’t trust his or her television to keep their deepest and darkest secrets private, who in the world can be trusted?

Surprisingly, the hysteria was caused largely by Samsung. In its privacy policy settings for its smart televisions, Samsung advised smart television owners that their conversations could be sent to third parties.[2] “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 [v]oice [r]ecognition,” Samsung’s policy reads.[3] Honestly, Samsung could have better phrased the policy to avoid the backlash.

However, upon a review of how the voice recognition technology really works, consumers will find that the Samsung smart televisions work in a fashion that should calm the anxiety of owners of the televisions. First, the smart televisions are actually “listening” to you, but the televisions are not recording or reporting words that are said. The Samsung smart televisions are “listening” for a limited number of the specific commands such as “change the channel” or “increase the volume.”[4] These commands are not stored or transmitted.[5] Unless one of the factory-programmed commands are spoken, the television remains “inactive”; once one of the commands is spoken, the television becomes “active.”[6] Once the television is “actively” listening, the user is notified by the presence of a large microphone in the middle of the television screen and a loud “beeping” noise.[7]

Furthermore, the smart televisions’ push-to-talk feature is not that different from the technology used in Apple’s Siri. Television owners can use the feature on the remote to search for items on the Internet using the television’s browser. The words spoken while using this feature is sent to a third-party speech-to-text translation company.[8] However, unlike Apple or Google (who handle the speech-to-text translation using their own servers), Samsung uses a third-party company to handle its speech-to-text translation.[9] Samsung does not sell or store this information.[10]

After reflecting on the response to the Samsung smart televisions, the backlash truly isn’t isolated to the Samsung TVs. After all, the voice recognition features can actually be turned off by the television owner. This backlash is more connected to some people’s constant worry about encroachment into their privacy. This fear will likely continue to grow with rapid advancements in technology that effect the manner people communicate, receive information, and enjoy entertainment. Granted, privacy is one of the freedoms that Americans most enjoy and take pride in, and by no means am I vouching for Americans to totally forfeit their privacy in any way. I do think that a “man’s home is his castle.”

However, I am making a practical observation: when it comes to some forms of technology, you may not be able to “have your cake and eat it too.” Without making too broad of a generalization, generally those who purchase a smart TV do so in order to take advantage of the very features (i.e. voice recognition, Internet capability) that make the television popular among the masses. These people believe that the utility of such a television is high. These same people must also realize that such features just don’t “magically” work on the television; artificial intelligence may not be to the point where televisions can actually “think” on their own. Also, implementing the technology into the televisions could be costly. Therefore, if the owner truly wants to benefit from the features on the television, he or she also has to accept the fact that current technology dictates that another party will have to be involved. In the very worst case, the TV owner could speak private or sensitive information that would be sent to the third party. The speak-to-talk feature may determine that it is a search and return search results.

I am sure that there will always be some people who feel uncomfortable with the technology because of its ability to possibly be compromised and misused, especially after the revelation of the NSA spying scandal. However, this argument can be made for several other technological advancements that have improved life. Simply put, the prospective television owner has to the weigh pros and cons of the technology. This rationale applies to several other areas of technology. As for me, I will continue to enjoy Siri and other forms of voice recognition technology.

[1]E.g. David Goldman, Your Samsung TV is eavesdropping on your private conversations, CNN Money (February 15,2015),http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/09/technology/security/samsung-smart-tv-privacy/index.html?section=money_latest.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] David Goldman, Samsung says its eavesdropping TV works like Siri, CNN MONEY (February 15, 2015), http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/10/technology/samsung-eavesdropping-tv/index.html?section=money_topstories.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Caleb Denison, You Can Stop Whispering: Your Samsung Smart TV is Not Listening to You, Digital Trends (February 15, 2015), http://www.digitaltrends.com/home-theater/samsung-tvs-arent-spying-eavesdropping-listening/.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

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