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Samsung may face FTC probe over voice-recognition TVs

Privacy group charges that Smart TVs' voice-command feature violates federal privacy law by collecting owners' private communications.

Screenshot by CNET

A privacy group has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Samsung out of concerns the electronics giant's Smart TVs are eavesdropping on their owners' private conversations.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the commission on Tuesday, charging that the Korean electronics giant's use of voice-recognition technology violates federal communication privacy law. The complaint highlights the delicate balance consumer tech companies must strike when introducing new products that incorporate voice, gesture and other commands.

The feature allows users to change channels, adjust volume or search for programs, all with just a verbal command spoken into one of two microphones. It became the focus of privacy concerns earlier this month when close reading of Samsung's privacy policy revealed a warning to users 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."

Although Samsung later updated its privacy policy to make it clear that the TVs' voice recognition and data collection features can be disabled, EPIC argues that Samsung's feature violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which prohibits the "interception and disclosure of wire, oral, or electronic communications."

"Samsung routinely intercepts and records the private communications of consumers in their homes," EPIC said in its 20-page complaint (PDF). "Samsung's attempts to disclaim its intrusive surveillance activities by means of a 'privacy notice' do not diminish the harm to American consumers."

Samsung representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the complaint.

In an earlier statement to CNET, a Samsung spokeswoman said, "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."

The voice-recognition feature in question is available on only a small number of Samsung Smart TVs. The models that can recognize your voice are the ones that include a built-in camera and microphone, such as the Samsung PN60F8500 . While most of Samsung's Smart TVs have some sort of voice function, almost all of them require users to press the microphone button on the remote before it starts listening.

Many devices on the market today have similar speech features that are always listening; that includes the Moto X , Nexus devices, Amazon Echo, Microsoft Kinect and even the iPhone (when the device is plugged in and the Hey, Siri command is enabled).

Samsung and the FTC did not immediately return a request for comment.