Samsung's warning: Our Smart TVs record your living room chatter

Technically Incorrect: Samsung's small print says that its Smart TV's voice recognition system will not only capture your private conversations, but also pass them onto third parties.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

You see, this is progress in intelligence. Because you need an intelligent TV. Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Why worry about Big Brother?

It's your big Samsung TV that's watching you. Oh, and listening to you.

That seems to be the conclusion from reading the privacy small print offered by the company. (Samsung's motto: TV has never been this smart.)

It concerns the voice-recognition feature, vital for everyone who finds pressing a few buttons on their remote far too tiresome.

The wording, first spotted by the Daily Beast, first informs you that the company may "capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features."

This is almost understandable. It's a little like every single customer service call, supposedly recorded to make your next customer service call far, far more enjoyable.

However, the following words border on the numbing: "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."

We are NOT having your mother here this weekend, next weekend or ANY weekend!

I'm pregnant and it's not yours.

The possibilities curdle in the mind. So much so that I have contacted Samsung to ask how broad this policy might be and what third parties might be informed of your personal conversations. (I would have just shouted at my SmartTV to get comment, but it isn't a Samsung.)

Watch this: Stop your Samsung Smart TV from spying on you

A Samsung spokeswoman told me: "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."

But what might be authorized and by whom?

Samsung's spokeswoman continued: " Should consumers enable the voice recognition capability, the voice data consists of TV commands, or search sentences, only. Users can easily recognize if the voice recognition feature is activated because a microphone icon appears on the screen."

Yes, we must now look for little microphone icons to check whether we're being listened to.

As for the third parties mentioned in the privacy policy, Samsung explained it to me like this: "Samsung does not retain voice data or sell it to third parties. If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV."

One imagines this is simply one more small step for mankind toward ultimate electronic envelopment, which some see as a very good thing.

Your Nest and other devices will, of course, capture so many of your domestic predilections too. This is about making the Internet of Things merely one more thing in making your life easier, lazier and seemingly less private.

Clearly, this isn't the only option for those intent on a SmartTV. You can disable the full panoply and stick to a series of already-defined voice commands. However, this still brings with it stipulations such as "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."

Alright, you cry, I'll switch voice-recognition data off altogether. This will result in "You may disable Voice Recognition data collection at any time by visiting the 'settings' menu. However, this may prevent you from using all of the Voice Recognition features."

As Samsung's spokesperson explained to me: "Voice recognition, which allows the user to control the TV using voice commands, is a Samsung Smart TV feature, which can be activated or deactivated by the user. The TV owner can also disconnect the TV from the Wi-Fi network."

You might imagine that other SmartTV manufacturers would have similar controls and stipulations. If a product can listen and record something, it's likely it will.

So I went to Philips SmartTVs and could only find a general privacy notice, with no specific information relating to SmartTVs. LG's privacy policy again is general, with no apparent specific information relating to SmartTVs and their potential.

I have contacted both companies to ask whether there is a more detailed supplement that makes their TVs capabilities clear.

LG was, however, embroiled in a privacy controversy in 2013, when its SmartTVs were accused of knowing too much. The company promised to change its policies.

At the heart of all this is, of course, trust. The best and only defense against intrusion from the likes of Google to Samsung is this: "We don't really care about your private life. We just want your data, so that we can make money from it."

It's inevitable that the more data that we put out, the more will be recorded and the more will be known about us by machines which are in the charge of people.

We have all agreed to this. We click on "I agree" with no thought of consequences, only of our convenience.

It isn't just your TV that will listen and record. Soon, it'll be everything that has a digital connection.

This is our digital bed. We lie in it willingly.

3:35 p.m PT: Updated with comment from Samsung