Samsung TVs May Eavesdrop on You - So What?

UPDATE: Tom's Guide received a response from Samsung, which is reprinted here in its entirety:

"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.

Voice recognition, which allows the user to control the TV using voice commands, is a Samsung Smart TV feature, which can be activated or deactivated by the user. The TV owner can also disconnect the TV from the Wi-Fi network.  Should consumers enable the voice recognition capability, the voice data used consists of TV commands, or search sentences and does not contain personal identifiers. Users can easily recognize if the voice recognition feature is activated because a microphone icon appears on the screen.

Samsung encourages consumers to contact the company directly with any product concerns or questions at 1-800-SAMSUNG."

This update suggests that the Voice Recognition data-sharing is also present in North American TV models.

ORIGINAL STORY: Could your TV be watching you? A privacy policy associated with Samsung's Smart TVs in the United Kingdom informs consumers that the devices' voice-recognition feature is hearing their words and sharing them with third parties. Privacy advocates on sites such as Reddit are comparing the Korean company to Big Brother, but they don't realize that we may already be living in 1984.

While it's true that you may want to either clam up or disable the feature, Samsung's policy is hardly unprecedented, nor is it any worse than what many people have willingly shared with advertisers for the last 20 years.

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A Reddit thread on r/technology Feb. 5 drew attention to the policy, which has actually been in place since Samsung's smart TVs have had voice-recognition commands. The policy on Samsung's U.K. website states 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 other words, Samsung's Voice Recognition feature is always listening, unless you deactivate it. If you think about it, there's really no other way the feature — or the similar feature on Microsoft's Xbox One with Kinect — could work. It also appears that that the "third party" may simply be a cloud-based voice-recognition service contracted by Samsung.

To their credit, Reddit commenters accepted the stipulation with good humor. You can turn the feature off, which prevents Samsung from collecting data, but also prevents you from making use of Voice Recognition features, such as being able to turn the TV on and off by simply speaking to it.

Here's the kicker, however. Even if you turn the feature off, Samsung may still collect data about your Smart TV usage habits. It even says as much in the British privacy policy. Every time you sign into a streaming service, or browse the Internet, or even just press a button on your remote control, Samsung is collecting your data and, perhaps, sharing it with third parties.

Samsung isn't alone; this is something that just about every company with an online presence does, including the United States government.

It's not clear whether North American Samsung TVs with voice-recognition technology collect the same data, or come with similar privacy warnings. The privacy warning seen by Reddit may be there only to comply with U.K. or European Union regulations, which may not have parallels in the United States or Canada.

If you're frightened about Samsung sharing what you say, accept it as a matter of course that whatever you type into the TV is fair game.

Consumer-data collection is hardly unique to Samsung. Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and just about every company on the Internet — including Samsung's fellow Korean TV maker LG, which was embroiled in a similar controversy in the UK 15 months ago — take your data (with your permission) and sell it to advertisers, and some of them even do it by listening into you. Read their privacy policies.

If you're concerned about Samsung capturing personal data from your offhand conversations, go ahead and disable Voice Recognition. But as for the associated moral panic, it may be too little, too late. The Internet runs on your personal data, and there's not much you can do about it.

Marshall Honorof is a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide. Contact him at Follow him @marshallhonorof. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.