Learning that your smart TV might be eavesdropping on your private conversations is one thing. But discovering that the manufacturer believes the solution is to be careful what you say when near your TV set is something else. It is, in fact, a reflection of a flawed policy which puts the importance of new technology and big data ahead of human rights like privacy and data protection.
Samsung recently acknowledged that there are some data governance issues with its latest generation of televisions. Like many other manufacturers, it has identified voice control as providing convenience and advantages, like no more lost remote controls. Just wake up the TV with a command and then tell it what you want to do.
So far, so good. Except that this is not simply a conversation between the viewer and the box. Those commands are captured and sent back to Samsung - and also to its third-party voice recognition software provider. That company processes the voice data stream into query results that are sent back to the TV.
As a big data operation, it is easy to understand why both want this to happen. Samsung wants to see how owners interact with its products so it can develop the next generation of services to build in. Nuance (the VR provider) needs to optimise the performance of its command service.
The problems arise in how this is being done and what controls users really have. Firstly, there is the question of whether this service can ever really be switched off. Some observers have already suggested that voice data gets captured even when the individual has switched off this option. Commands may not get processed and returned, but the data is still flowing out of the set.
It was this issue that Samsung suggested was best solved by not talking near your smart TV. So forget about privacy in your own home - it is the right of technology to be there and capture data about you. Does that seem likely to create a sustainable basis for the coming generation of big data and the Internet of Things? Or could it become the grounds on which consumers start to reject this new technology or insist they want limits to be placed on how it works?
Secondly, the data streaming out of Samsung’s smart TV turns out not to be encrypted. So a determined hacker could run a “man in the middle” operation that captures this information and puts it to unknown use. As breach of the fundamental data protection requirement to keep data secure, this is especially striking.
Advocates of technology will no doubt argue that these are just teething problems and that nobody has been harmed as a result. That is often the problem when your human rights are violated - there is no visible damage. Nobody should doubt that harm has been done, however. Nor should it be argued that the rights of technology over-ride those of humankind.