The Internet greeted me this week with a barrage of shocking headlines. “Be careful what you say around your Samsung Smart TV,” “Samsung Smart TVs record your personal conversations” and, my personal favorite, “The spy in your living room.” These days, I expect click-bait headlines, but this business about an army of eavesdropping TVs is flat-out irresponsible reporting, loosely rooted in ignorance and imagination.
Before you waterboard your TV in an attempt to extract the secrets it has learned about you, allow us to explain exactly how these TVs work, and why they aren’t the emissaries of evil they’re being made out to be.
Granted, that sounds pretty nefarious, especially when taken out of context. Unfortunately, Samsung’s overly succinct description is missing some critical context. Namely, it doesn’t say when the spoken words are captured, under what conditions data is transmitted to a third party, or who that third party is.
We asked Samsung to clear up all of these questions, and frankly, the conspiracy theorists might be giving these “smart” TVs too much credit.
How Samsung’s voice-recognition feature actually works
The suggestion that Samsung Smart TVs are “always listening” is a misnomer, and at the core of all the scuttlebutt. The fact is, Samsung’s Smart TVs are asleep on the job 99 percent of the time. They’re programmed to “wake up” when they detect a pre-programmed phrase such as “Hi TV,” but — and this is critical — until that phrase is spoken, they aren’t “paying attention” to anything you say, nor are they storing or reporting anything.
Smart TVs aren’t anything like that nosy office-mate whose ears perk up anytime they sense juicy gossip. These are small computers dedicated to specific tasks, and they don’t even attempt to execute those tasks unless they are triggered by something very specific. They aren’t equipped with artificial intelligence, and don’t “understand” what you’re asking in any human sense.
Once the TV is listening, it lets you know by placing a big, colorful icon with a big microphone right in the middle of the screen, accompanied by a loud beeping tone. Even if you’re not looking at the TV, you will likely hear the sound.
At that point, the TV uses on-board processing to match what you say to a predetermined list of executable commands. You can turn the TV on, adjust the volume, or open an app, but at no point does the TV communicate with the outside world for these commands. In fact, the TV doesn’t connect to the Internet until you request a search of some sort. For example, if you want to see a list of Paul Rudd movies or find out what the weather is like in Boston, the TV will send your request through a third-party speech-to-text server to translate what you’re asking, and then download pertinent information.
When the TV does this, it may report some details about your IP address or information stored in cookies, but a Samsung representative who spoke with us on background told us that the information is only used to help improve the voice recognition, not to score the pin number for your debit card. For instance, by noting certain regional accents and dialects, the speech recognition software can better understand people in different parts of the country.
The mysterious ‘third party’
Why does your voice data need to leave your TV at all? Because translating speech to text requires some intense computing, and Samsung uses an outside service to do some of the heavy lifting. Titans like Apple, Google, and Amazon can do this on their own servers, usually with technology they own through multi-million-dollar acquisitions. But most smaller companies, including Samsung, use third-party companies to do the same work. LG, Panasonic and a host of others do, too.
The worst-case scenario might look something like this: A Samsung Smart TV hears something similar to its wakeup word in a casual in-room conversation — let’s say “tiny bee,” for instance — and wakes up. Somehow the user doesn’t notice the glowing signal on the TV screen, nor do thy hear the audible alert. The TV is now listening when the user’s conversation moves to a sensitive topic, say a social-security number or something of a sexual nature.
In this instance, the TV is going to send the voice recording off for processing. Then what’s going to happen? If the TV considers it a search for information, it could end up returning a result on its built-in Web browser, and, granted, that could a be little weird. But that’s the end of it. The information, Samsung assures us, is encrypted in transit and doesn’t get stored.
From where I sit, there seems to be little room for catastrophic consequences.
Tons of your other devices do the same thing
It seems unfair to demonize Samsung Smart TVs specifically when so many other household devices do the same thing. Look at the Xbox 360 and Xbox One Kinect service, LG’s Smart TVs, Amazon’s Echo speaker, or Microsoft’s Cortana — these are all examples of technology that await a verbal prompt and connect to the Internet as a resource when needed, and they could just as easily be spying on us.
If we’re going to have a conversation about the implications of voice commands and technology that listens to us, that’s fine, but let’s not single out a single company for doing something so many others do as well.
What you can do about it
If you’re anything like me, the novelty of having voice control over your TV wears off quickly, and you turn it off. That’s the solution for anyone that doesn’t want to run any risk of their TV “listening” all the time. Simply turn off the feature in the settings menu. And if you’re really paranoid, you can disconnect it from the Internet entirely.
Less freak-out, more civil discourse
Smart TVs, whether made by Samsung or its competitors, aren’t some sort of Orwellian manifestation, nor are they akin to the HAL 9000. Frankly, they just aren’t that smart. I’m not suggesting folks shouldn’t be cautious, but we should be careful about jumping to conclusions when we don’t really understand how a technology works. Yes, we’re a little nervous after learning the NSA — our very own government — has been spying on us. But that doesn’t mean we should jump to conclusions in the absence of facts.
If anything good comes of this, it will be that Samsung and its competitors will go out of their way to ensure people feel safe with their products, even if that means longer, more verbose privacy policies, and the kind of transparent disclosure that usually makes big corporations squeamish.
For now, just enjoy your TV. And feel free to share your innermost secrets in front of it.