a week in wireless

A Week In Wireless – TVs still need to get smarter

Even by modern standards there was an exceptional amount of news regarding the use of technology to breach individuals’ privacy this week. The BBC seemed to have an unofficial ‘mobile snooping week’ with features dedicated to smartphone surveillance opportunities.

There was the story of the lawyer who used the Manything (monitor anything) app to keep an eye on her dogs while she was at work, and which alerted her to some suspicious activity. Imagine her alarm when she logged on to check on Fido and Rover only to see live footage of them utterly failing to even intimidate the burglar that had just broken into her house. She called the cops and then watched on with morbid curiosity as her dogs even begged for treats before the intruder clocked he was being recorded, fleeing too late to avoid the long arm of the law.

And then there was the television report on an app still in development that will apparently let parents keep an eye on their kids via their smartphones. There was the standard b-roll of concerned mum watching young, impressionable child leaving the house, reassured by her ability to track their every activity remotely. But then the Beeb did what it does – pose the false dichotomy: “…is this a just a useful parenting tool or a spy in the satchel that turns mum and dad into Big Brother.”

Do you see what the reporter did there? Through the clever use of both alliteration and reference to George Orwell’s 1984 he illustrated the delicate balance that needs to be struck between security and freedom – something entire countries as well as busy mums have to wrestle with.

But the Orwellian comparisons really came thick and fast with the revelation that if you turn on the voice recognition feature of your Samsung Smart TV it can recognise stuff you’re saying in general conversation and then share it with… whoever.

“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,” warns Samsung’s Ts and Cs. “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.”

Cue a spasm of panicked “things have gone too far” headlines, imagining us to be on the verge of a dystopian catastrophe along the lines of 1984 meets Terminator meets The Matrix. It seemed to be just a matter of time before our TVs became self-aware and engineered a nuclear apocalypse in order to commence farming human beings for their bio-electrical energy.

Samsung’s PR position wasn’t helped by another story claiming these same malevolently ambitious Smart TVs were also serving surprise pop-up ads to their owners even over content streamed through third party apps. While it turned out this quirk was not apparently deliberate and limited to Australian Smart TVs, it was the last thing the company needed.

The spying story was eventually addressed via the now customary channel of a corporate blog, entitled “Samsung Smart TVs Do Not Monitor Living Room Conversations”. The blog explained how voice recognition works, then sought to clarify the issue in question by implying the only third party that may receive your voice data is Nuance, which provides the voice recognition service, and that even that only happens when you click an activation button.

It probably was all a bit of a storm in a tea cup, but what is undeniable is the media and public’s appetite for ‘machines taking over the world’ stories. As devices grow ever smarter, tech companies are going to face these kinds of PR crises more frequently.

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