TECH
09/02/2015 03:37 GMT | Updated 10/02/2015 09:59 GMT

Samsung Smart TV Voice Recognition Privacy Policy Reads Like George Orwell's '1984'

Tech giant Samsung has warned customers against discussing personal or sensitive information in front of its voice-activated televisions.

The South Korean company had a rough weekend, after it was noticed that the terms of its Privacy Policy for TVs with voice recognition bear an uncanny resemblance to the text of George Orwell’s book 1984.

Privacy campaigners have branded the policy "outrageous" and made comparisons to Orwell's description of telescreens, which spied on citizens in the novel.

At its simplest, the problem is that a TV designed to operate based on your voice is - by definition - listening. And it will send anything it hears for translation on its service including private conversations.

But what's the reality? And do you have reason to worry?

The comparison above is pretty obvious. And the relevant passage of Samsung's privacy policy states in no uncertain terms that if your spoken words include “personal or other sensitive information”, and they are picked up while you're using Voice Recognition, that’s going straight to a third-party's servers for translation:

The policy says:

“You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands. If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you.

In addition, 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.”

And the passage from Orwell has straightforward points of comparison...

"Behind Winston's back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

However, since the passage in question was noticed on Reddit late last week, it has become clear that your worst fears haven't quite been realised.

Samsung's warning is a general one, covering but not necessarily applying to all of its Smart TV sets. If your set doesn't have Voice Recognition - or you've chosen to turn it off - you have nothing to worry about.

The TV-maker has also clarified that it does not retain or sell your communications, so while a 'third party' handling the translation has not been named, they will not be keeping it or selling it -- again, as long as they stick to the rules.

It is also worth saying that it currently seems that the issue is only a problem from the point when you press the voice command button - unlike other devices, Samsung's Smart TV is not listening the entire time.

Following the news, Samsung issued a statement to TechCrunch outlining the ways in which it attempts to protect users’ data:

“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 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.

Samsung does not retain voice data or sell it to third parties. If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV."

Indeed many or all devices with a level of voice recognition - including your phone, your tablet, your laptop, your car and pretty much anything you use with a WiFi connection - will run into a variation of this problem.

As such this should be taken not as a specific slight on Samsung, but rather a wake-up call about what we give up in order to bark orders at our electric gadgets.

Professor Mike Jackson, an expert in computer science and cyber security at Birmingham City University’s Business School sees the news however as something that can be interpreted in two ways saying:

“From a technical point of view, Samsung’s policy makes sense to locate language deciphering software in a centralised location. However, the implications are huge on a human level."

“It’s important to remember here how much information Sony lost to hackers. Could we see this happening again? Or perhaps the Government would like to access the information the television collects so that it can better identify dissident individuals and use it as a tool to combat terrorism.”

Emma Carr, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "Samsung need to understand that not everyone wants to be spied on by their TV. It is outrageous that the company has even stated in its own privacy policy that if the TV's owner does decide not to share their private information, then the company may still take the information anyway.

"This leaves users with no knowledge or control over where your information goes or who has access to it and that is simply unacceptable.

"Few people would expect a TV to intrude on our privacy, yet this is increasingly becoming the case. As this sort of technology is being made to gather increasing amounts of data about us, it is vitally important that people should have to choose to make use of these additional services."