Your Smart TV Could Tell Others All About Dumb Stuff You Do

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By Bob Sullivan

Read it and weep: "Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. 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.

"If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands. While Samsung will not collect your spoken word, Samsung may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it."

As a leader of the oft-paranoid-sounding-privacy-sensitive crowd, let me be the first to congratulate Samsung for its honesty. Plenty of my friends in paranoia have pointed out the language included in Samsung's new SmartTV privacy policy. Because the gizmo uses voice recognition to let owners change the channel and do other cool things, naturally the TV has to "watch you." And anyone paying attention knows just what that means: "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," says Samsung's privacy policy.

Paranoid? Join the Club

Am I just being paranoid, or do you also dislike the idea of your living room chatter being recorded and sent off to unknown "third parties?" Don't answer that.

In truth, this is just lawyer-speak. Samsung and its partners don't want to hear about your Aunt Ethel's health problems, and they don't want to listen in on your make-out sessions (the company even confirmed its listening intentions in a recent blog post). Really, I believe that. Any gadgeteer working on systems like these, which are tricky and usually clunky, wants to know how they are being used any how to improve them. Of course. A very responsible lawyer forced the firm to include that disclosure in the interest of completeness. It sounds worse than it is. Until, it isn't.

Recall that every record stored in any computer anywhere can be obtained by law enforcement, or really anyone acting on behalf of a court of law. Forget Ed Snowden and super-spooky FBI software monitoring phone calls. The FBI can simply ask Samsung, or its "third-party" suppliers, and obtain records of what happens in your living room. So can (until someone proves otherwise) folks investigating civil claims, such as.....divorce lawyers. Those makeout sessions would be of plenty of interest to them.

The 'Privacy' of Your Home

"I totally can see the FBI or others approaching Samsung ... probably without thinking there's any need for a warrant .. and saying they were after a 'bad guy' and 'asking' for that data," said a former colleague of mine, Steve White. He is now president of White Marsh Forests, a firm working on machine learning technology. "Happened regularly at MSN...MSNBC. Now I'm staring warily at my Samsung laptop."

To be clear, it's settled law in the U.S. -- any information you share with a "third party" private company can be obtained by law enforcement. You surrender any expectation of privacy once you disclose something to a corporation, or any third party. It's the biggest end-around in American privacy law.

Don't blame Samsung for this. It's just telling the truth. I hope you are now wondering about any other gizmos you have invited into your home that watch you. Smart thermostats? Internet-enabled crock pots? Yup, these things can squeal to anyone about you. They can relate when you come home at night and plenty of other very personal details about your life. Any technology that watches (or listens) to you creates a record that can be used against you. Even if you are in the "privacy" of your own living room. And our living rooms (and bedrooms) are about to be inundated with this stuff under the friendly name of the "Internet of Things."

The problem is the law. Of course Samsung should be able to see how its technology is working, and be able to learn from real-world uses. We just need to pass laws that make it expressly, unequivocally illegal to use that information for anything other than its intended purpose, and require that it be permanently deleted as soon as that intended purpose is complete. Notice, I didn't say the data should be anonymized, because (if you've been paying attention), it's really hard to anonymize data. It needs to be deleted. The privacy of 100 million living rooms shouldn't be up for grabs so law enforcement might have a slightly easier time catching a criminal every once in a while. That's not the way America should work.

Thanks, Samsung for helping me feel a little less paranoid. And hopefully making a few more people feel a lot more paranoid.

This is an op/ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.
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