Thinking Tech

TVs may soon be used to spy on you

TVs may soon be used to spy on you

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Technology designed to adapt to the preferences of each individual user may also be used to pass that information along to hackers or advertisers.

During most recent Consumer Electronics show, industry giant Samsung showcased thier new line of Smart TVs, which featured technologies they felt were capable of revolutionizing the viewer experience.

Attendees who walked by their platform were treated to a magic show of sorts in which reps demonstrated how the seamless integration of sensors, built-in cameras and microphones enabled "smart" features such as gesture control, voice commands and all kinds of interactive and connectivity goodness.

The media, of course, took notice. "Samsung is doubling down on its core TV leadership and attempting to make the TV the main household Internet device, observed ReadWriteWeb's Richard MacManus.

However, it isn't all quite rainbows and butterflies for consumers. That's because, as one industry critic recently pointed out, the same intricate array of computer-inspired hardware and software designed to adapt to the preferences of each individual user can also be used to pass that information along to others without the user's knowledge. Basically, your snazzy new home entertainment system can also be thought of as a high tech peephole.

It was product expert Gary Merson of the web site HD Guru who broke down the manner in which something like this was even conceivably possible. In his analysis, published on MSNBC, Merson thoroughly explained how each component of what is a fairly complex system could be rigged to continuously collect information without anyone suspecting it was even happening. Information, he says, that hackers, or even the manufacturer Samsung can then sell to advertisers.

But before we get to that, I want to be fair and talk a bit more about what makes the TV sets so 'smart' in the first place. The plasma and LED TV sets are built with a camera and microphones located along the top of the screen bezel, both of which are connected to the Internet to allow instant access to readily available apps stored on the Samsung cloud. They also come with face and speech recognition software used by the computer to recognize who's giving the commands and hence learn that person's preferences. For instance, if you like to watch Madmen, but it's not on until later in the evening, it will eventually know enough about you to recommend some other shows you might like to view in the meantime.

All of this sounds great, but here's the crux of Merson's criticism:

What concerns us is the integration of both an active camera and microphone. A Samsung representative tells us you can deactivate the voice feature; however this is done via software, not a hard switch like the one you use to turn a room light on or off.

And unlike other TVs, which have cameras and microphones as add-on accessories connected by a single, easily removable USB cable, you can't just unplug these sensors.

During our demo, unless the face recognition learning feature was activated, there was no indication as to whether the camera (such as a red light) and audio mics are on. And as far as the microphone is concerned the is no way to physically disconnect it or be assured it is not picking up your voice when you don’t intend it to do so.

Samsung does provide the ability to manually reposition the TV's camera away from viewers. The LED TV models allow you to manually point it upward, facing the ceiling; the plasma’s camera can be re-aimed to capture objects in the rear of the TV according a Samsung spokesperson.

Considering how much time we spend interacting or just simply being pre-occupied with our laptops, tablets, smartphones and TVs, the data that's gathered would be of great value to companies that are out to target specific potential consumers. So if your a chronic channel surfer, don't be surprised if you start seeing more commercials for prescription drugs like adderall. Hackers and even CIA can break into the operating system and watch you from your very own home.

Last week, CIA Director David Patreaus acknowledged that the agency had more than a passign interest in tapping into these very technologies to gather intelligence about "persons of interest."

Merson had also sent a query to Samsung regarding thier privacy policy, for which the company has yet to respond to his requests. All he found was legal fine print that essentially stated something along the lines of "Sorry, can't help you there. You're on your own."

Here's a snippet of the text:

Samsung assumes no responsibility, and shall not be liable, in connection with whether any such products or services will be appropriate, functional or supported for the Samsung products or services available in your country.

The new TV sets are set to ship this month. However, judging from that, it seems like consumers now have a legit reason to wonder whether electronics companies like Samsung will soon go the way of Google, Facebook, the government and even employers in suddenly having an avid interest in how you spent your Friday night.

(via MSNBC)

Photo: CNET

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure