The Spies in Your House

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Image is of a family watching a Smart TV. On the TV is an eye with a magnifying glass in front of it, as if to say, "I'm watching you."

“I wonder what’s on?”
“Us. We’re on.”
Illustration by Lynn King

I miss the days when television advertising was not directed to me personally. The days when you watched what was on, and if that included ads imploring me to feed my cat gourmet cat food. By the way, I don’t have a cat, but I do prefer the throw-out-an-ad-and-see-what-sticks method of TV advertising of yesteryear to what we have today. Back then, you watched TV; it was not watching you.

Today’s Smart TVs resemble more computers and less like the televisions we once knew. Companies like Samsung, LG, and others not only track your viewing preferences, but they can, depending on various voice assistant and Smart Home technologies used, know what pizza you ordered, your house temperature setting, and that you have ordered an Uber. These things might seem harmless at the outset, but where will all this tracking lead? At best, they lead to targeted advertising; at worst, a house/TV hack that becomes your worst nightmare. After all, you only bought a TV; you did not want to give away your personal details and habits to what could amount to hundreds of places located anywhere in the world.

We spend a lot of time locking our doors and windows to keep the riff-raff out, but what about the riff-raff that penetrates our homes though sketchy privacy policies with hard to find, convoluted opt-out measures. Samsung and their ilk would argue they collect nothing without your consent. The thing is, as Samsung puts it, withholding your consent “may affect your ability to use some Services.” In other words, your “Smart” TV may have just become an idiot box because you don’t want them to share your information or choices from your voice commands. In reality, you have no choice but to consent if you desire a fully-functioning TV. Forced consent is not consent. Why would I spend more to buy a Smart TV with a myriad of options that are not accessible? I wouldn’t.

Smart TVs that collect your information and viewing habits may be here to stay, but you do not have to throw your hands up in the air in total despair, thinking you cannot do anything about it. Of course, it is impossible to get around all privacy infringement from Smart TV hawkers and the like, but you can do some things to limit what they can take from you. I think the first step is knowing what they are compiling and what they are doing with that information; this means taking a look at their privacy policy. I know, I know, I can hear the collective groan.

When you purchase an Intelligent TV and create an account, the company needs to know the usual suspects like contact information, shipping addresses, your email address and birth date, although those last two items are not necessary. Giving out your email address leads to spam, phishing and other harmful acts against your computer systems. Giving your birthday away willy nilly can lead to identity theft. How? According to Frank Abagnale Jr., former conman, current FBI advisor, and subject of the movie, Catch Me if You Can, all someone needs to create a new id is your birth date, your place of birth and a front-facing photo of your face — often found on Facebook. Once someone has stolen your id, that’s it, game over. Getting it back is next to impossible because thieves sell your id over and over. My advice? Your birth date is a need-to-know item. Friends and family are all good. Government, law enforcement services and your job are also good bets. Sellers of electronics, however, do not need to know your birth date or your email address. If they insist, go elsewhere to purchase your television. You’ll see that they will change their tune quite quickly.

This next part includes things Samsung wants to know, like your TV viewing history, including what you are watching, how long you viewed, the apps you use, the channels, and programs you watched, and the websites you visited. Samsung’s privacy policy states, “We may use automatic content recognition (ACR) and other technologies to capture your TV viewing history.” This history includes everything you watch, including DVDs, Blueray, streaming, over-the-air broadcasts, and of course, cable. They may be tracking your connected devices, as well. That could mean your iPad, laptop, Xbox, keyboard or things of that nature that you can connect to your Smart TV. According to their privacy policy, all this information collected from you is under the auspices of “enhanced” or “customized” TV viewing experiences. Euphemisms to explain why they track aside, selling personal data is a multi-billion dollar industry. I don’t know about you, but I would bet their real reason for tracking has less to do with helping us with our viewing experiences, and more to do with making money.

Then there is the voice tracking issue. Samsung had once warned customers that they should “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.” They have since changed the wording in their privacy policy. However, don’t be fooled. No matter how they say it, once voice recognition is turned on, it does what it is meant to do; it captures your voice at all times and then it gets sent to a third party to transcribe it to text, so if it is not something you need, I would advise you to switch it off. It is important to note with regards to Third Parties, “Samsung is not responsible for these providers’ privacy or security practices.” Nice to know, but where does that leave us? Searching a multitude of Third-Party provider’s policies, that’s where. That’s a lot of reading and where does it end, because it is not just Samsung looking in on us; all Smart TV makers do it, and all third-party apps do it too, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of those. That’s a lot of customer data mining. In the end, the only way to prevent companies from tracking our usage is to disconnect entirely from the Internet. For most of us, that is not a solution.

So what’s a person to do? Be more careful about what information you give away and to whom. Stores don’t need your email address or postal/zip code or your birth date. Never give away your contact list, ever. Most form filling practices are only there to gather your information. Remember, most companies today make money from selling your personal information, and those companies, in turn, do the same thing. In the end, this pattern of sharing your data could go on indefinitely; making it impossible to learn where your data has landed. One only has to look as far as the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook fiasco to see that regardless of all the best intentions, and iron-clad terms of service policies in place, things can still fall off a cliff fairly quickly. The backlash from people deceived in this manner can get quite ugly and can be the demise of a company. It is not a stretch to say that most people are not happy about being tracked. There are no locks, no real security measures between you and those you bring in to your homes by way of the blindly accepting privacy policies and terms of service, except those security measures we place on ourselves by choosing to say no to certain actions. When it comes to personal information, the less you give, the better.

(Please note: I use mainly Samsung throughout this article only because it is the brand I am most familiar with.)

Update: CTV News just came out with a report:

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