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Samsung Updates Its Smart TV Privacy Policy. What Consumers Need To Know

If you haven't noticed the technology trend, many smart televisions include voice recognition features. So, similar to smart phones the smart televisions include embedded microphones. This week, television maker Samsung updated the privacy policy for its smart televisions. Previously, the policy did not name the third-party company providing the voice recognition features.

Many consumers are concerned about their privacy. Consumer Reports explained the privacy concerns:

"Manufacturers have been producing smart TVs with voice recognition since 2012... many televisions have come to market that even monitor the viewing habits of their owners. Are these TVs capturing and transmitting highly personal conversations from inside consumer's homes and and logging their channel-surfing behavior? Plenty of people have registered exactly this concern, including this British blogger back in 2013, as well as Michael Price, of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice... an article last week in The Daily Beast has caused a new uproar..."

So, Samsung attempted to addressed these concerns in its blog with a change to its privacy policy. Yesterday, Samsung stated in its blog:

"Some Samsung Smart TVs offer voice recognitions functions. These functions are enabled only when users agree to the separate Samsung Privacy Policy and Terms of Use regarding this function when initially setting up the TV. Apart from initial setup, users are given the choice to activate or deactivate the voice recognition feature at any time."

Consumers enable or disable the voice recognition features through the Settings menus on their television. Samsung admitted that the text of its privacy policy caused some confusion. The old privacy policy text:

"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."

That sounds confusing and intrusive to me. The revised privacy policy text:

"If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some interactive voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service provider (currently, Nuance Communications, Inc.) that converts your interactive voice commands to text and 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. Samsung will collect your interactive voice commands only when you make a specific search request to the Smart TV by clicking the activation button either on the remote control or on your screen and speaking into the microphone on the remote control."

"If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands."

That's an improvement. It's good that Samsung explicitly named the feature provider, since many manufacturers don't. Interested consumers might go the next step and visit the Nuance Communication site to see who they share data with.

Samsung's new privacy text is an improvement, but it is not 100 percent clear. Either the voice recognition feature is on or off; enabled or it isn't. There shouldn't be a halfway state, where the consumer turns the feature off but the television still accepts some predefined verbal commands. That is dumb and dishonest.

According to Consumers Reports, Nuance Communications works with:

"... Samsung developers to bring voice control applications to wearable devices such as Samsung’s Gear series of smart watches. Nuance is also behind Apple’s Siri personal assistant—or, at least Nuance CEO Paul Ricci said it was back in 2011. Through its Dragon Drive platform, Nuance brings voice control and smart phone integration to the telematics systems of Audi, Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz vehicles. And Nuance also has products that allow doctors to dictate and manage patient medical records..."

Data collection (or surveillance) by smart televisions is a disturbing trend. Consumers have paid good money for smart televisions. Manufacturers should be able to make sufficient profits from sales without having to resort to data collection. If the smart TVs were free, then I would expect data collection. But consumers pay good money for smart TVs. The data collection shouldn't be needed. Why the data collection Samsung?

This presents some challenges for consumers. As i see it, smart, informed consumers should be aware of several issues and exercise the following choices:

  1. View smart televisions with voice recognition features just as you would voice-activated smart phones, video games, and automobiles. Make smart, informed purchases. Don't buy any products that lack privacy policies, which has been the case with too many mobile apps.
  2. View smart televisions like social networking sites. Just like many social sites collect and save both your published and unpublished posts including edits, smart televisions are headed in the same direction. Why? First, companies want to collect as much data as they can about you, your preferences, and attitudes. Second, developers believe that consumers talking to devices builds relationships with those devices.
  3. Before purchase, read both the privacy and terms of use policies. If you don't like them, don't buy the product.
  4. After purchase, know how to turn voice recognition features on and off. You may turn it on at certain times and then leave it off at all other times. Read any and all privacy policy updates the manufacturer sends so you know what data is collected and shared.
  5. Know that any feature the "good guys" develop can be hacked by "bad guys.
  6. Your home should be a safe place where consumers can have truly private conversations. Several technologies threaten that. You may have to go to another room (or unplug and disconnect the Internet-connected device) to have a truly private conversation.
  7. If you are a parent, you know best when to explain privacy to your children (or grandchildren) based upon their ages and capabilities. Doing nothing does not seem to be a wise option.
  8. If you have questions, visit both the manufacturer's web site and trustworthy sites. (Hopefully, this blog is one.) The Resources page in this blog contains links to many trustworthy sites.
  9. Contact your elected officials and tell them about your concerns.

What are your opinions about smart televisions? Samsung's new privacy policy? What do you do to ensure private conversations in a room with a smart television?

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