Imagine if your television was listening to everything you said in front of it. Hold on, actually, this doesn’t need to be a thought experiment. Simply pop down to the shops and buy a Samsung Smart TV (from £280) and voilá, in your living room, nestled up against the wall, will sit a device that listens to all the conversation within earshot. And records it. And then sends it on to another company for analysis. Do you have a copy of 1984 to hand? Best get one…
Unless you’re the sort of conscientious consumer who scours the small print – which seems unlikely, since you’ve just bought a television whose big selling point is the ability to control it with your voice, rather than go through the rigmarole of finding a remote control – then you would have missed Samsung’s warning.
The Smart TV manual reads: “If your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.” Why? The faceless “third party” is employed to turn your speech into text, so that Samsung can improve the ability of its Voice Recognition software to follow your every command.
There must, you’d think, be bulky protections to stop, say, hackers finding out that you don’t find your spouse particularly attractive any more, or would do terrible things to Eddie Redmayne, or recently fixed the Libor rate? Not at all. Samsung “is not responsible” for the security practices of third-party companies, the manual adds.
And so to 1984. The passage you’re looking for is the one in which we learn that a telescreen is attached to the wall of the protagonist’s apartment, and “any sound that Winston made, above the level of a low whisper, would be picked up by it” – with the Thought Police on the other end.
It’s a chilling comparison, and the extract was put out yesterday by an online privacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But as with most hat tips to Orwell’s dystopia, it’s a little over the top. Samsung isn’t Big Brother. Owners of its latest television can always turn the Voice Recognition feature off, or buy a different TV entirely.
Of course, you have to know about the monitoring of your data to nix the idea. Would anyone choose the Smart TV if it said, on the box, “I’ll be eavesdropping, permanently”? What's more, it’s likely that a catalogue of other products are doing much the same – but being even less up front about it.
Few seemed to bristle at Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013: the collection of metadata by intelligence services can feel abstract, unthreatening. What feels clear and present and invasive – at least, more so – is the monitoring by private companies of one’s own body, and voice, within the supposed privacy of one’s own living room.
And this, increasingly, is the destination that technology is heading in. “We’ve been talking for a while about the Internet of Things,” says Ian Brown, professor of information security and privacy at the Oxford Internet Institute, referring to the idea that soon, many household items will keep tabs on the home environment. “But it’s different when you see it in practice. I can see why people are scared. Thinking that your TV is listening to you is a step up from wearing a Fitbit [a wristband which monitors heart-rate and other bodily functions].”
Besides Samsung, Microsoft, Intel and Google have started to research the television that watches you. In 2012, Verizon sought to patent a media console that could detect who was doing what in a room, and target advertisements accordingly. So, a couple who were cuddling could be shown “a commercial for a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for contraceptives” and so on.
A coup for advertisers. But I can’t be the only person who, the more they hear about sentient technology, starts to dream of Green Bank, West Virginia. Wi-fi is illegal there, and the population is said to be booming.
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