Smart TVs raise privacy concerns

Consumers may want to consider other options, like home theater PCs, that are less aggressive gathering personal data

Reports that new Samsung TVs can capture personal information with their voice recognition feature has sparked concern about what critics perceive as digital spying by so-called smart devices.

Last week, online magazine The Daily Beast spotted wording in Samsung's privacy policy that suggests users should be careful when they speak near their smart TVs. This generated buzz on Twitter and other sites, including comparisons to Big Brother behavior from George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.

The SmartTV Supplement for Samsung's global privacy policy says that to provide the voice recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted to a third-party service that converts speech to text, and that Samsung may also retain these voice commands and texts to improve the technology.

However, the most concerning part appears to be this: "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."

Samsung is not the only smart TV manufacturer collecting this type of data. In Samsung's case, users have the option to disable the collection.

In November 2013, the owner of a smart TV made by LG Electronics discovered that the device was collecting information about his viewing habits, even when the "collection of watching info" feature was turned off. Worse, the TV also sent back to LG's servers the names of files stored on external media devices and even network shares.

After his report was picked up by the media, the company issued a firmware update to stop the data transfer if the collection feature was turned off. However, a few months later, it issued a new update that asked customers to accept a revamped privacy policy that gave the company the right to collect viewing, voice and device usage information and to transfer it overseas, to countries with potentially fewer privacy protections.

"You do not have to agree to the Privacy Policy but if you do not, not all Smart TV Services will be available to you," the company's policy says. This effectively forces users to decide between sharing their usage data with LG and having their smart TVs dumbed down.

These increasingly aggressive data collection practices by TV manufacturers, which hope to make some advertising revenue on the side -- the LG policy says the data can be used for personalized advertising -- raise the question of whether smart TVs are really worth the privacy sacrifice, especially when alternatives are available.

Many smart TVs provide less functionality than dedicated home theater PCs (HTPCs) connected to regular TVs. And HTPCs these days are no longer expensive, bulky or power hungry.

For example, a Raspberry Pi can easily be turned into an HTPC by installing OpenELEC, a lightweight Linux distribution designed specifically to turn a computer into a media center.

OpenELEC is built around the popular Kodi (formerly XMBC) open-source home theater software, which supports a wide variety of media formats, streaming and file sharing protocols -- often more than what the media players included in smart TV firmware can handle. It's also extensible and has a large collection of add-ons that provide anything from weather information, to Web browsing, YouTube viewing and even voice control through mobile phones.

If Raspberry Pi is not powerful enough, there are other small alternatives. For example, currently sold for $120, the 2-by-2 inch CuBoxTV packs a quad core ARMv7 CPU, 1GB RAM, a 3D graphics chip, HDMI, USB, Gigabit Ethernet, eSATA and optical audio ports; and an InfraRed receiver for use with TV remote controls. Users can get SD memory cards preloaded with OpenELEC or Android that just need to be plugged in.

Granted, setting up and configuring an HTPC can take more work than simply buying a smart TV and turning it on. However, given TV manufacturers' increased appetite for user data, HTPCs, especially those based on open source software, are a safer choice for those who value their privacy.

Samsung is transparent about its data gathering practices on Smart TVs and provides "meaningful options for consumers to freely choose or to opt out of a service," a company representative said in an emailed statement. "We employ industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers' personal information and prevent unauthorized collection or use."

Users can easily recognize when the voice recognition feature is active on a Samsung smart TV because a microphone icon appears on the screen, the representative said, adding that collected voice data is not sold to third parties.

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