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S-s-s-samsung’s listening to you . . .

Samsung’s latest model Smart TV is the real deal.

Users of Samsung’s Smart TV devices have raised concerns over the device’s privacy policy, which seems to suggest that they should not discuss any sensitive topics in their living room while the television is plugged in.

The warning relates to the product line’s voice recognition services, which lets users control their television with voice commands input through a microphone on the set’s remote control.

Samsung privacy policy warns: “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.”

Get it now before the rush; the word is that this technology soon really will be a “must-have”. Because it isn’t just Samsung or the company that provides Samsung with voice-recognition software that you need to worry about. As the Boomtown Rats put it back in ’79:

And when the place comes ablaze with a thousand dropped names
I don’t know who to call.
But I got a friend over there in the government block
And he knows the situation and he’s taking stock,
I think I’ll call him up now

32 comments to S-s-s-samsung’s listening to you . . .

  • pete

    I’m tempted to buy one and to shout words like bomb, terrorist, tax and evasion at it to see what happens.

  • Mr Ed

    Pete, if you live in the UK, it will report you to Lady Hodge, the MP on the Public Accounts Committee, and Keith Vaz, the MP on the Home Affairs Select Committee, and you will die a slow, lingering death unwillingly wallowing in their sanctimony.

    You have been warned.

  • Voice recognition in a TV (people still use those?) and oh so many other devices is a technology that answers questions I never asked and almost certainly never will.

  • Mr Ed

    I recall reading, a long time ago, about early TV remote controls that were ultrasonic (rather the then more common infra-red light models). A small fraction of the owning population with pet parrots or budgies etc. had a problem in that the birds could hear the remote control’s commands and would mimic them, causing the TV to react at random and with no obvious cause. I don’t have a TV, I do have a neighbour with a parrot though. The parrot is more engaging. I am still waiting for the TV Licensing Enforcement Officer to come around. They are wasting about £1 a month writing to ‘the legal occupier’. I am almost tempted to write back ‘the lawful occupier’.

    Apple Dictation is not unlike Apple Maps in its user-friendliness.

  • Fraser Orr

    You know just recently I got my W2 (tax document) in the mail, and wanted to take a photo so that I could put it into my tax program later. I got a pop up from Google Goggles saying that it was a pic containing my contact info. It totally freaked me out. My android phone just apparently sent all my tax information up to Google to process into its massive database about me.

    Needless to say, Google goggles in now gone from my phone.

  • Mr Ed

    Fraser, Sounds like that 1980s song by Rockwell “Who’s watching me“?

    “…Can the people on TV see me, or am I just paranoid?..”.

    “…I wonder who’s watching me know (WHO?) the IRS?…”

  • Laird

    “I am almost tempted to write back ‘the lawful occupier’.”

    Love it!

  • Spy-in-the-home and spy-in-the-phone are ongoing problems; so it’s TV now too. If the signal capture hardware exists, and cannot be hard switched to off, there is always the risk that some hacker will be watching and/or listening. And then there are the wonderful Apps!

    Our family computer came with a (cable connected) video camera. I was keen to disconnect it (and put it in the cardboard box for electronics that is awaiting its trip to the recycling centre) but other family members seem philosophically attached to being ‘on view’. My solution is an inverted earthenware mug: easy to check; hard to hack.

    Fortunately, on that computer, there is no inbuilt microphone, and I have one with a hard switch in the cable – saves mucking about with back panel plugs.

    My laptop, sadly but now largely as standard, has inbuilt both a microphone and a video camera. It spends most of its life powered down in a zipped foam case.

    I’ve just upgraded my mobile phone. The previous one did not work in Argentina and Chile (but did have connectivity in Brazil – diagnostically helpful): I think A & C have totally phased out all the radio modulation systems it used (perhaps just GSM). The new (well replacement) phone is at least 4 years old, and is known to work in A, B & C (so that’s good). The (single) camera mostly has a fine view of my desk (if it can focus at 0.5cm), or the street outside; occasionally my pocket. Concerning the audio, it’s difficult to be sure: but I don’t say much in my office; 95+% of the time any eavesdropper will get just computer fan noise; maybe 3%-ish, my choice of music. On the fixed line phone, I need to be stricter on walking away from my office with the cordless handset. There’s still no satnav, so the Lamplighters will need a full team.

    All this is so tedious. It’s an ongoing problem that no one else seems to care. And, because of that (and the contingent provision by the ‘free market’ /sarcasm), maybe there should be some government regulations. But, oh dear: them too be hard at it, exploiting all of the possible weaknesses.

    Best regards

  • Runcie Balspune

    This is old news, Siri and OK Google work the same way, they send voice instructions to a server.

  • Ken Mitchell

    It takes a fairly substantial computer to do decent voice recognition; even programs like Dragon Naturally Speaking have problems, even running on a nice i5 or i7 system. If your TV or whatever doesn’t have an i5-or-equivalent processor (and NONE of them do!), then the voice recognition is being done “in the cloud”.

    “In the cloud” is lazy-speak for “on somebody else’s servers, and I don’t know whose or where”. Siri lives on Apple’s servers; “Hey Google” lives on Google’s servers, and both X-Box and Cortana live on Microsoft servers. (These might be subcontracted out, but probably not.) I’m not aware that Samsung has any expertise in voice recognition, so they’ve probably farmed it out to some OTHER entity; for all we know, it could be the North Koreans or the Red Chinese.

    If you say ANYTHING incriminating (or cringe-worthy) within earshot of a voice recognition system, you might was well have posted it to a public web page. We don’t KNOW that other people are listening, but if you’re a celeb or a spy, you probably ought to not take that chance.

  • Jeff Evans

    A couple of days ago,I was talking about secret microphones in coffee shops; how could I be so far behind the times?

  • Nicholas (Natural Genius) Gray

    Samsung just want to know if you think that LG have a better TV. If you do, just think what trouble you’ll have with reception from then on!

  • I seem to remember that Winston Smith had a similar problem with his TV.

  • Nicholas (Natural Genius) Gray

    Yes, but back in 1984, they only had one channel! Life has improved.

  • Eric

    Voice recognition in a TV (people still use those?) and oh so many other devices is a technology that answers questions I never asked and almost certainly never will.

    I don’t think you’re alone there. This is just creepy.

  • Andrew Duffin

    “Must-have”, not in the sense of “everybody wants it”, but rather in the sense of “every TV is required to have this by law, so you’ve no choice”.

    I imagine that’s how it will work; it usually is.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Andrew Duffin,

    Yup, that’s pretty much the point I was making. Only, unlike Winston Smith’s telescreen, they won’t tell you that is what they are doing. It will just be the case that TV’s – and numerous other things besides – won’t be available without the software. And a completely separate law will be passed banning the use of old ones because of the fire risk, or because they can’t be disposed of in an environmentally sound manner, or whatever.

  • Laird

    I know people who put a piece of electrical tape over the camera in their laptops. Would something like that work for the microphones on these “smart” TVs? Or could the microphone be easily turned off or disabled? I can see a cottage industry arising to provide that service.

  • Laird

    I was just reading a comment on this issue by someone on another site which bears repeating:

    Your On-Star can be turned on remotely so someone can listen as you talk business while you are in your car. Vehicles with BlueTooth and WiFi are so easily hacked it’s nothing short of ludicrous because there are no safeguards against it. Your home phone, even while hung up, can be used by somebody to listen to you as you chat around the house. Your computer screen acts as an RF transmitter so someone can, with the right equipment, read everything you type including passwords from a distance of a few hundred meters. The camera in your computer/tablet/cell phone can be accessed remotely so you can be watched. Your cell phone can be turned on remotely so somebody can listen to the conversations around you and it can be used to track you. Nothing is ever really turned off until you pull the plug from external power and remove the battery.

    We’re doomed.

  • Your computer screen acts as an RF transmitter so someone can, with the right equipment, read everything you type including passwords from a distance of a few hundred meters.

    A tinfoil hat solves this problem, I am told.

  • Laird

    I hope you’re right, Tim, but I’m not quite sure how to put a hat on a monitor. Wouldn’t it block the view of the screen?

  • I did the research on this for my last novel.

    Get a small random-noise generator (like this one). Find the location of the TV’s mic and tape the unit, or the output speaker from a mono headphone close to it (the mic has to be quite sensitive, so only a tiny noise will spoil its reception). Just for giggles, change the noise every day or so.

    No need to thank me; it’s all part of the service.

  • Richard Thomas

    Fraser, I’m a fan of camscanner. Saved my life when I was on the road and had a dozen receipts to turn in every week. Though I only ever needed the free version.

  • Richard Thomas

    Perhaps it is time for the return of the small repair shop. Not to fix things but to snip the wires to the microphone and solder a small switch inline.

  • Ken Mitchell

    “Perhaps it is time for the return of the small repair shop. Not to fix things but to snip the wires to the microphone and solder a small switch inline.”

    Why? A little electrician’s tape would do the job, and no more spy-video!

    Of course, the Amazon “Echo” device is just as bad; it listens for EVERYTHING, and Amazon’s servers are probably no more secure than Samsung, or whoever Samsung contracted out for voice recognition.

  • the other rob

    Something to remember is that every speaker is also a microphone. Disabling the overt mic may not be sufficient.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Electromagnetic detection evesdropping is yesterday’s technology, nowadays you can be even more paranoid.

  • This story, as is, is not very interesting. You activate the recording with a simple phrase detected by a DSP chip in the TV, or by pressing a button, then recording starts, you say the command, then recording stops. Only a couple of seconds of audio is transmitted anywhere, and you know it is happening. It is not sitting there recording everything secretly.

    Unless it is. No-one really knows what is going on, and *anything* with a microphone and some electronics could be secretly transmitting sound anywhere.

  • We have a wonderful system for training spies. It is called Prohibition.


  • Jason

    What might be more interesting – or at least more entertaining – is this explanation of the original article by a colleague, which he tweeted, was retweeted by Rory Cellan-Jones and which led another journalist to have a close look at Samsung’s Ts & Cs:


  • That is a good story, Jason.

    The reality of “transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition” is probably that they run their analysis software on Amazon Cloud Services or somesuch. I doubt that Amazon would look at it at all, and even Samsung don’t *listen* to the audio. I’m not so sure about the NSA, though.

  • Jason

    Glad you liked it Rob. Not often you get to tell light-hearted stories in technology journalism.