We Have More To Worry About Than Samsung's Smart TV Privacy Policy

The world has gone nuts today, over a story that says Samsung is spying on us in our living rooms via its Smart TV software. Lines have been drawn between a scary caveat in a privacy policy and George Orwell's 1984, and we're being warned about how we're losing ourselves to technology all over again. Don't be foolish, guys: your privacy vanished a long time ago.

In case you're new to this story, here's what happened earlier.

Over the weekend, someone spotted a clause in Samsung's Smart TV privacy policy which stated that stuff you talk about in front of your TV gets sent to third parties to be stored and processed. Twitter users then compared the policy to an excerpt from George Orwell's 1984, which freaked everyone right out.

Here's the tweet:

And for those playing at home, here's the full clause:

“You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands. If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you.
In addition, 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.”

In layman's terms, that means the Samsung Smart TV is listening to your voice and sending what it hears off to a "third-party provider" for processing — that third party is an intermediary service that figures out exactly what you said and converts it into data that the TV can use and act on. If you say "change to ABC News 24" to your TV (under the right circumstances), it will record that snippet of audio, transmit that to a third party, receive a data response, interpret that data, and then dutifully change your channel accordingly.

As we pointed out yesterday, Samsung isn't the only tech company that has this kind of clause in its privacy policy. LG has one too, and we went through a similar saga back in 2013 over its "eavesdropping" in the living room. Do you use Siri? She's doing exactly the same thing.

I'm not about to defend these companies for their third-party data handling. LG has an ad unit on its old Smart TV dashboard that markets products to you, and services like Facebook and Twitter sell your data to advertisers as their primary business model. It's how these companies make a large portion of their income. It's happening everywhere, whether you know it explicitly or not.

Read more: Why Is My Digital Assistant So Creepy?

But then — that's the whole point, isn't it? We're getting all bent out of shape about our TVs potentially spying on us when we willingly hand over much more personally identifiable and abstractly valuable data to services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Uber et al. We have much more to worry about than a poorly worded clause in a Samsung Smart TV usage policy.

What about the Federal Government's proposed data retention program that would see all of our metadata sucked up in the name of national security? What about our smartphones tracking our location in the background for innocuous reasons? What about our transit cards that create a map of everywhere we've been for later use? What about all the terms and conditions documents you just mindlessly and habitually agree to when you're installing new software?

All of these things have been happening for years, and it's a simple and relatively innocuous terms and conditions document shared on social media — which also harvests your data, by the way — that gets our collective back up about privacy?

The reason people are freaking out about the Samsung privacy policy "issue" is not because they're concerned about protecting their own privacy. It's because it makes people realise their privacy was traded for convenience and flashy gadgets years ago, and they just clicked "Accept".



    Heard you on 774 this morning, Luke. You're famous! :p

    Also, good job talking a serious topic with Red.... that takes balls...

    So you should be safe if you don't say your name, address, email, password or credit card numbers, but honestly... who uses the smart tv features anyway? i have a TCL television, i bet those chinese cannot wait for me to put in my information for them to sell.

    I am almost 100% sure the same thing happens with Samsung smart phones. I have noticed too many coincidences. One day while driving, with my gs3 in the car, I was casually discussing rock climbing with a friend of mine. I care little for rock climbing and have zero interest in it, it was just a random conversation. Later that day I log onto Facebook and at the top of my newsfeed is an advert for rock climbing.

      Had you searched for it though? My ads always update depending on what I've been searching for recently.

        I search for porn all the time and I never get ads about porn. Damn, I'm being ripped off :)

      I have noticed with my smartphone that when I call someone, the words I say are transmitted to some other place in the world and emitted out of another similar device at that location. Quite scarey really.

    What about the Federal Government’s proposed data retention program that would see all of our metadata sucked up in the name of national security? ...
    All of these things have been happening for years, and it’s a simple and relatively innocuous terms and conditions document shared on social media — which also harvests your data, by the way — that gets our collective back up about privacy?

    Not a great example because we've got our collective backs up about the metadata bullshit, too.

      Not in the same way people have about the Samsung tracking stuff. I've been doing interviews all day talking to people about privacy. It's crazy how few people realise what's going on.

        Must be the different circles we move in, but I'll have to take your word for it.

        I wonder if the difference in reaction is due to subverted expectations. With the government's metadata stuff, it's out in the open, being discussed, we have some semblance of influence by voting or threatening politicians with voting... but for all these EULAs, our options are what? Don't like it, don't use it? Read thousands of words of boring crap to find the sinister handful hidden in between?

        It seems under-handed, less open, less open to influence... all key points to make someone more upset.

    What's with my Samsung TV deciding last night that it will now play an ad every 10 minutes when I am streaming media over the network onto the tv or when using SBS On Demand/iView/Yahoo7 etc.

      Someone must have whispered to it that you just love ads.

        @lukehopewell They must've misheard. I said I love those "fads" lollies and I will tell anyone, man or machine, who will listen.

          Don't you mean fags? 10 Fags is what they were called when l was young (a LONG time ago). I guess Fags became politically incorrect..

            There was some sort of PC shitstorm about 'Fags' inspiring kids to light-up and think smoking is cool.
            The name got changed to 'Fads' and the red-glow colouring on the ends got removed, so they couldn't be mistaken for lit cigarettes.

      MINE DID THE SAME!! Pepsi ads every 10 minutes in iView!! And the ads obviously didn't belong as they kept crashing the stream -.-

    This is the time when people should be emailing their federal members of parliament. I know it sounds a little stupid, but they receive very few emails that even a small number can actually get the point across. You can look up your lower and upper (Senate members are state/territory based, so you can email all of them for your state) house members here:

    Last edited 10/02/15 1:42 pm

      Gotta say, the link on that page about how to address Senators and Members was fascinating.
      They didn't have any of the good swears!

      I agree. We all need to write to our respective members. Privacy policy is out of control. Corporations have all the rights and no responsibility. We need to make this the BIG issue it really is.

    I totally get it - Samsung I am sure made it perfectly clear in all their Smart TV advertising the tradeoffs in using the Smart TV features. When you go into the store to buy the salesperson goes paragraph by paragraph through the EULA explaining all the clauses making sure you understand before making a purchase. So people have no cause for complaint do they? Oh wait...

    What planet do you live on? None of this happened. At best the EULA would have appeared in a tiny unreadable box on the screen which you need to click through before doing anything. What average person thinks their TV will spy on them?

    It is kind of rude to suggest that people are giving their data away willingly. Study after study show that people care a lot about their privacy. From the 2014 Pew Internet survey 91% of people "agree" or "strongly agree" that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies. Unfortunately companies are working hard to mask how much information is collected and used.

    There needs to be more options than either participate in society and lose all privacy...or keep your privacy and go live in a cave.

    Unless the television includes a built-in speech interpreter that works out of the box of course it's going to use a third-party service to work out what you're telling it to do.

    I don't see why this becomes big news when someone tweets a sort of Orwellian sounding sentence from the user agreement. Mobile phones have been doing the same for years and I bet people tell their phones much juicier details than they tell their television.

      I think that's the point. People (myself included) assume that the speech interpreter is built into the machine. For example in my Audi, it accepts voice commands. I'm 100% sure it's not transmitting that over the internet to interpret what I say to perform the action required.

      I would have assumed (and by the sounds of it many others) that the Samsung TV would be doing the same thing. That I could disconnect it from any network, and the voice commands would still work.

      What we're discovering that as a cost saving or some other reason, the processing part has been off loaded to a 3rd party when really it should be built into the machine.

      Yes I realise that it's off loaded to a 3rd party in part so that it can actually learn and get better over time (such as Siri, Cortana etc) to give us a better experience. But again, I'm a luddite that assumes that all household appliances shouldn't need updating and that the software approach of 'just get it out there and update it later" is filtering through now to our home appliances.

    @lukehopewell Is the voice control feature activated by default? This seems like a critical point of the argument that has been overlooked (just by me?).

      Depends what you mean by "default". It's not on all the time, listening in the background for you to say "Hello TV" or a similar phrase to start giving it instructions. I have a Samsung 2014 smart model and to activate voice control you have to press a button on the remote and then speak your command into the microphone on same.

      Actually, this article states:

      On new models of TV, you can also set a verbal command — like "Hi, TV" — that will cause the TV to start listening. No voice data will be transmitted until the verbal command has been given, Samsung said.


    I'm finishing my masters thesis focusing on how perceived benefits and perceived risks affect consumer acceptance. I'm focusing on RFID in the grocery industry, over the next 10 years, the amount of data companies (marketers) are going to be able to pull out interconnected smart home appliances and products is going to be insane.

    Where is the disclaimer about gizmodo being sponsored for Samsung events including CES

    There is a solution to the problem, and it is this: Only run code you trust.

    To do that you have to roll-your-own entertainment system. Preferably with a GNU/Linux OS and a 'dumb' monitor.

    Most people will not spend the time to engineer a DIY solution. They have, and they will continue to sign or 'accept' away their privacy for convenience.

    Maybe a strong hacking/DIY culture and a refusal by consumers to use their products and/or services will change the way things are going... It could happen. Geek culture is huge right now thanks to The Big Bang Theory.

    Business ethics around the collection of data-rich personally identifiable information is... lacking. It's a little evil, but it's legal, and it would take a strong deterrent either legal or social to curb their Big Data, Rich Data plans.

    Last edited 10/02/15 11:53 pm

    Its the Third Party.... that scares me. Not the technology. What a company considers third party can be really really bad.

    A marketing company called me and told me we are working for your bank, you recently had a transaction at branch X at Y time, we would like a moment of your time for conduct a customer survey. I was a bit shocked, and the person accepted my "huh" as a yes and kept talking. Can you prove to me you are Mr Z. Whats your date of birth ? I hanged up on them and called the bank to report it as a fraud.... turned out, the bank hired them. They got an earful from me, as I told them to read their own internet security FAQ and what they did wrong. Anyone who responded to the survey, should of had their credit card cancelled.

    Telstra let private phone numbers leak on the net, cause they put them on a google doc (or something) to share with a third party that had the wrong privacy settings. Telstras cold call marketing that tries to sell you a mobile phone upgrade.... is the Bauer Media Company it creates spam, clickbaits and facebook freebooting that lives to get all your personal details so they can craft more targeting ads in your face... and Telstra just gives your information to them.

    The other part that bothered me about Samsung was the "industry-standard security safeguards" you mean the same safeguards other electronic and entertainment companies like SONY!!! used on the gaming networks and in their own offices. Companies cant keep their own data safe, we cant trust them with ours.

    Always-on voice data collection is hardly the same as any other example you've provided Luke, even Siri.

    I can't understand why people are willing to buy a tv that feeds them ads myself.

    So just don't use the voice recognition. Is that so hard?

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