Samsung SmartTVs may share private talks with 3rd party

When you open up to your loved ones in front of your Samsung SmartTV, you may be opening up to more people than you intend.

'Personal or other sensitive information' may be sent to voice-to-text service

Samsung caused a stir when reports surfaced that its SmartTV voice-command system might capture and send snippets of personal conversations to third parties. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

When you're relaxing in front of the TV with your loved ones, it may sometimes seem like a good time to open up and get some private thoughts off your chest. But if you have a Samsung SmartTV, you may be opening up to more people than you intend.

The issue arises if you have the TV's voice recognition feature turned on to allow you to control the TV with voice commands.

In an updated Global Privacy Policy, Samsung explains that some voice commands may be transmitted, along with information such as the identity of your device, to a third-party service that converts speech to text in order to provide the voice recognition feature.

"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," the company said in the SmartTV supplement of its privacy policy.

The updated privacy policy was flagged last week by the online news website The Daily Beast.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, Samsung clarified that if voice recognition is enabled, the voice data consists of "TV commands, or search sentences, only," suggesting that it shouldn't normally capture idle chatter. However, the privacy policy suggests that the system may sometimes capture other words by accident.

Samsung itself may also capture voice commands, including the versions converted to text, the company said.

Data collection can be disabled

Samsung noted that users can disable voice recognition data collection in the settings menu.

"However, this may prevent you from using all of the voice recognition features," the privacy policy said.

In its email, Samsung added that users can easily see if the voice recognition feature is activated because a microphone icon appears on the screen.

The company said users can also disconnect the TV from the Wi-Fi network to prevent their data from being transmitted.

"Samsung takes consumer privacy very seriously," the company added. "In all of our SmartTVs, we employ industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers' personal information and prevent unauthorized collection or use."

It encouraged consumers with concerns to call the company at 1-800-SAMSUNG.

Carmi Levy, a London, Ont.-based technology writer, recommended that smart TV owners turn the voice recognition feature off or go into another room if discussing something highly sensitive.

He said the voice recognition is by nature always listening to you, "waiting for you to talk to it. And when you do, that information has to go somewhere."

He added that the same risks apply not just to smart TVs, but other voice recognition technology, including Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistants or Amazon's Echo device. He suggested the same precautions should be taken around those devices also.

"They let you command it to do things, which is very convenient," he said, "but that convenience comes at a price."

Valerie Lawton, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said in an email the office is aware of the issue of voice-activated services generally. However, she said privacy issues depend on the technical design of the system and the associated policies and practices.

Her office hasn't examined those in the case of Samsung's smart TVs. The office is currently looking more generally at privacy issues that can arise from smart devices or the Internet of Things and will issue a series of reports later this year.

Samsungs are not the only SmartTVs that have raised privacy concerns since they hit the market.

In 2013, LG Electronics Inc. confirmed that some of its smart TVs were sending information on home viewing habits back to the company without consent. The company said it would fix the problem.


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