Thursday , August 17 2017

Samsung’s Smart TVs and Voice Recognition: Always Listening?

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Smart TVs are pretty cool, and can do some nifty tricks, from basics like watching YouTube straight on the TV, through to more advanced features like voice commands. It’s that latter part which has Samsung in a bit of negative press at the moment, and we thought it might be worth a closer look. It’s not strictly an Android topic, but it has relevance to Android devices, many of which provide the same features as Samsung’s range of televisions.

What’s all the fuss?

Samsung’s Privacy Policy, which applies to its Smart TVs, includes this:

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.

If your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.

If you disable voice recognition the television will still listen out for key command phrases, and “Samsung may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it”. It’s worth noting that the user can disable data collection entirely through the settings menu, which will also disable all voice command capabilities.

Why’s this such a worry?

We’re used to voice recognition in our smart devices these days. iPhones and Android phones have been doing this for a while now with Siri and Google Now, and more recently, they’ve had always on listening as well. If certain pre-conditions are met, your phone will listen for key commands, and then do as you say. For example, a Nexus 6 can be set to always on listening, and to get its attention, you just say “Ok Google” and it’ll listen for your command.

It’s hardly surprising, and it can’t be said that this is somehow secretive. Always on listening is not automatically enabled, and the process to set it up is designed in such a way to make users absolutely sure they want to turn it on. Put another way, you couldn’t possibly enable it by mistake.

Nor could you allege that Google is acting somehow nefariously; the terms and conditions for always on listening are set out right in front of you so that you can make a clear and informed choice.

What do Samsung Smart TVs actually do?

Samsung has been taking questions from all angles, and essentially Samsung says its not the issue that it’s made up to be. Samsung’s spokespeople have said:

“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.”

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.”

That seems to sum up the issue right there; if the voice recognition system is listening to you, it’ll signify this by displaying a microphone icon on the TV’s display. That seems to be a lot more than other ‘always listening’ devices do; there’s no way of telling from looking at a Nexus 6 (for example) or a Moto X that its listening to you, until you say the magic words and all of a sudden realise that it was. There’s no microphone icon. Nothing lights up. You’d only know after the fact.

At least the Samsung TV tells you. Heck, in many circumstances, you actually have to activate voice recognition manually before it will start listening to you. Hardly a danger.

Samsung’s ‘always listening’ option (and it is an option, you can easily turn it off) seems to have generated the ultimate case of whinging about first world problems. We want all these nifty features. We want to be able to control our televisions by barking orders at them, instead of using archaic remote controls, but all of a sudden we don’t want them to listen to us.

It seems to be that you can’t have it both ways.

If you want the convenience, you have to take (on trust) that Samsung doesn’t do anything inappropriate with the voice data that it collects when the microphone icon is active. You also have to trust that Samsung has the appropriate safeguards in place to make sure that someone can’t break in and steal your private conversations.

Is that really such a huge risk? Probably not. Is Samsung likely storing audio recordings of everything its Smart TVs overhear? Unlikely. The storage requirements would rapidly become implausible. More likely, some data is stored, but not in a way that would be useful to a 3rd party.

If you’re concerned about the privacy implications, or aren’t prepared to take that risk, then simply turn the feature off. If you ask me, from what’s reported around the Internet on this, it’s not really a big news story. Where was the uproar about Google Now’s always listening? Apple’s Siri always listening?

There wasn’t any. Perhaps its because TVs are in our lounge rooms, and are (like it or not) a major part of congregation in the home. We talk about all manner of things in our houses that perhaps we mightn’t like others to hear. That our TV could be secretly listening to us, recording us, and reporting it to someone else is precisely the stuff 1984 is about, but it’s about as realistic as that book, too.

Voice recognition powers a feature. A feature you can turn on, or you can turn off. A feature you can make an informed choice about. It seems that’s where the story both starts and finishes.

What are your thoughts on this? Is Samsung in the wrong? Are Smart TVs that listen inherently bad, or do we just need to be careful online (as we’ve been warned for decades now)?

 

Chris Rowland   Editor and Publisher

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