The walls have ears

It’s not just Samsung TVs — lots of other gadgets are spying on you

AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Samsung was the target of a privacy dust-up due to a disturbing sentence in the privacy policy for its smart TVs: “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.”

“Your Samsung SmartTV is spying on you, basically,” translated The Daily Beast’s Shane Harris, who brought the clause to light. To emphasize just how Orwellian a voice-transmitting device in your living room is, Parker Higgins, an activist at EFF, put Samsung’s privacy policy alongside an excerpt from 1984.

Samsung reacted by writing a defensive blog post, and changing its privacy policy, but the changes came too late to prevent reputational damage and an inquiry from Senator Al Franken, who penned a letter to Samsung’s CEO, asking 8 poignant questions about the abilities of its new technology.

But Samsung’s televisions are far from the only seeing-and-listening devices coming into our lives. If we’re going to freak out about a Samsung TV that listens in on our living rooms, we should also be panicking about a number of other emergent gadgets that capture voice and visual data in many of the same ways.

The LG Smart TV

Samsung’s competitor, the LG Smart TV, has basically the same phrase about voice capture in its privacy policy: “Please be aware that if your spoken word includes personal or other sensitive information, such information will be among the Voice Information captured through your use of voice recognition features.”

LG's Privacy Policy

LG’s Privacy Policy

Xbox Kinect

Microsoft’s Kinect is another example of a privacy worry in a box. A recent New Yorker article about companies’ desires to start using cameras in televisions and elsewhere to detect our emotional states highlighted just how intrusive the Xbox One is thanks to the Kinect camera it contains:

Microsoft’s Xbox One system has a high-definition camera that can monitor players at thirty frames per second. Using a technology called Time of Flight, it can track the movement of individual photons, picking up minute alterations in a viewer’s skin color to measure blood flow, then calculate changes in heart rate. The software can monitor six people simultaneously, in visible or infrared light, charting their gaze and their basic emotional states.

Microsoft originally planned to make the Kinect always-on by default, but users freaked out. So it changed its mind, offering more deliberate controls and a very carefully-worded privacy policy about the Kinect camera: “You control what happens to photographs taken during gameplay and whether voice commands are captured for analysis.” Regarding the camera’s ability to capture and analyze facial expressions, Microsoft says that data “stays on the console and is destroyed once your session ends.”

Kinect's Privacy Policy

Kinect’s Privacy Policy

Amazon Echo

Not to be left out of the smart home revolution, Amazon released this year a home assistant called Echo, which is “designed around your voice.” While the Echo — a canister-shaped speaker with a microphone embedded inside — is listening to you all the time, Amazon’s FAQ claims that the device is only interested in recording and transmitting what you say when it hears a “wake word,” such as “Alexa,” the device’s default name. When the wake word is uttered, Amazon says, the Echo transmits the voice input that follows, as well as the voice input from “a fraction of a second” before.

Amazon FAQ

Amazon FAQ

GM’s Onstar

Cars are also starting to worry privacy-minded consumers. When GM’s Onstar changed its privacy terms in July, it signaled plans to collect more information about people’s driving patterns. In its privacy policy that predates June 2014, it had a section that reassured users it wasn’t consistently tracking the location or speed of their cars. In its new privacy policy, that reassurance is gone.

On Star privacy policy change

OnStar’s new privacy policy (left) and old privacy policy (right)

Chevrolet’s MyLink and PDRs

In 2015, Chevrolet produced 18 cars that can be equipped with MyLink technology. MyLink allows drivers to have hands-free voice controlled access to their radio systems and connect their phones to the on-board audio system, if they so choose. The technology, which is triggered by voice recognition, is powered by the Nuance Company, and is one of many forms of voice recognition in motorized vehicles, (Intellilink is another example.)

Chevrolet’s latest Corvettes go even further, with an incredible built-in data grabber called “Valet Mode with Performance Data Recorder.” Valet mode allows Corvette drivers to spy on their own vehicles remotely, and the Performance Data Recorder allows them to record HD video from the car, along with information including the car’s speed, RPM, and gear position, all of which is available for download to a computer. (We couldn’t find a privacy policy for the Corvette’s new data-gathering features, but will update this if we get one.)

Google’s Waze

Those who drive, Corvette or not, are likely familiar with Waze. The app uses GPS data from multiple cars on the road in order to create a live map of the flow of traffic in a given area. Security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski recently took a close look at Waze’s privacy policy, calling it ” downright scary,” in that it grants the navigation company the right to collect a unique identifier for every user, profile their driving activity, and sell it in an “anonymous and aggregated form” to third parties. “As you are likely aware, there is no such thing as anonymous GPS data,” writes Zdziarski. Waze’s privacy policy shows that it not only collects information about an individual’s daily route, but also periodically collects the phone numbers from the phonebooks of its users.

Waze's Privacy Policy

Waze’s Privacy Policy

Hello’s Sense

In case you weren’t losing sleep over the ways your data is being collected, there’s Sense by Hello, a device that monitors your sleeping habits by listening in to what’s happening in your bedroom to let you know if any loud noises disturbed your rest. The alien egg-looking device has an always-on microphone to records what happens in your bedroom and send the audio back to Sense’s cloud for easy playback by Sense owners; the brand new product started shipping this month. A close look at Hello’s privacy policy shows that the company takes no responsibility when it comes to deleting your information.

Hello's Privacy Policy

Hello’s Privacy Policy

Viewed in light of all the other data-transmitting gadgets and apps we’ve invited into our lives, Samsung’s SmartTV debacle looks like just the tip of the privacy iceberg — and the beginning of a conversation consumers and regulators will need to have about how to treat these devices and the information they capture. Perhaps Samsung’s public flogging came about because it was too honest about the implications of bringing a TV with ears and eyes into your home. Next time, the company should just point to all the other spying gadgets on the market and shrug.

Story Tags