Security advice: Shut up and watch TV

Hard to believe that this isn’t something out of a dystopian novel: Samsung is warning some its customers not to discuss anything private while watching television. 

Connected devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) is all the rage, and one feature that’s increasingly popular is voice-controlling devices. Several of Samsung’s televisions include this voice recognition feature. But the privacy policy for that company is drawing some attention by security researchers and concerned consumers. Part of that policy includes this alarming passage:

“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 [emphasis added.]”

In other words: Your TV is listening to you, so don’t say anything personal while watching “Game of Thrones.”

Startling implications

The counterarguments for these kinds of stories usually are either to just disable the voice recognition feature or that consumers should realize there’s a trade-off between privacy and convenience.

But this highlights a serious problem with smart devices: They aren’t built with security in mind, but they might also not be concerned at all with privacy issues.

On top of that, many phones and tablets also include background listening for voice commands.

Companies would be wise to examine any devices they purchase for potential privacy risks. This might even involve combing through notoriously difficult-to-decipher terms, policies and service level agreements. Keyword searches for “privacy,” “third parties” or “sensitive information” may help you cut through the filler and get to what really matters.

Disabling these features on devices in the workplace may also be important.

And for companies that are especially concerned about listening in, the nuclear option may be to ban smartphones from meetings where sensitive information will be discussed. While that won’t be necessary for many, it could be a good last line of defense.

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