Wednesday 17 July 2019

Mind what you say - because your TV might be listening

We’ve entered an era where people will raise their fingers to their lips because they’ve forgotten how to turn off the VO on their television set.
We’ve entered an era where people will raise their fingers to their lips because they’ve forgotten how to turn off the VO on their television set.
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

We live in privacy obsessed times, which is rather ironic. After all, many of those who complained most vociferously about the alleged snooping of the NSA on our personal emails failed to realise that by posting every conceivable piece of personal information on social media, the average spook merely needs to follow you on Twitter to find out everything they need to know.

But the news that the latest Samsung Smart TV can now listen to what you say in the 'privacy' of your own sitting room is surely a new intrusion. Who, in the name of Orwell, thought that was a good idea?

Its new telly, like X-Box Live, contains voice-operated software which allows you to tell it to change channel and raise or lower the volume and basically provides those important functions you need for those occasions when using the remote control really is too much hassle. Who among us has never wished that there would come a day when we could just talk to the telly instead?

But as much as everyone likes a new gimmick, Samsung's latest toy potentially signals the end of domestic privacy as we know it. That's because the set will not only receive your instructions, but it will record all the conversations taking place within the vicinity.

Samsung hardly dispelled anxiety over the new development when it issued a statement which warns that: "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 the third party."

That's scary in itself, but the 'third party' in question is an American software company, Nuance, which means everything you say will be potentially recorded by a company which operates under the NSA's legal sphere of influence. This opens up a whole new vista of potential problems. I can barely watch Barack Obama on television anymore without muttering darkly under my breath or, on occasion, openly ranting at him when he's on the screen. Is Nuance obliged to report what would, in any other medium, be considered 'terroristic threats' (as well as technology, our language has also become depressingly Orwellian)?

We've already become used to the idea of our laptops becoming zombified by remote control. A couple of years ago, for example, my system froze before a fake but vaguely official looking arrest warrant appeared on the screen, informing me that I'd been caught watching child porn and would have to pay $100 to free the screen up. That was a monumental irritant, but while I had already heard of this piece of malicious malware, several people, including a British teenager, have committed suicide as a result of being caught up in the scam. What's to stop someone hacking your telly and pulling the same stunt?

A few years ago, if you expressed concern that your TV was listening to you and recording your every word, you'd have been sent to the nearest shrink as soon as possible. Because let's be honest, only mad people think that inanimate objects are listening to them, right?

We've all been to someone's house and when the conversation turns to a particular topic, someone might put their fingers to their lips in a 'shhh' gesture.

That's usually because kids are in the room, or someone else might not be in the loop. Or, in my case, it's usually just because they want me to shut up.

But now we've entered the era when people will raise their fingers to their lips because they've forgotten how to turn off the VO on their television set.

Of course, data mining from TV goes back as far as when the first viewership figures were released, but that has always been a voluntary process, where participating households were paid to install a device which would take note of their viewing habits.

Samsung says that anyone who buys its new smart TV can turn off the voice-command system, but why would you buy a new gizmo if the first thing you do is disable its most exciting feature?

No, I reckon Samsung hasn't gone far enough.

If it wants to release a truly smart TV, why not get one that's interactive?

Why not have a telly that scolds you for watching five Nazi documentaries in a row? Why not have a truly intelligent set which says: "Ian, really, you've seen this shark documentary three times already. Get a life and develop some proper interests, will you?"

Actually, there is a device which already does that.

It's called a 'wife'.

But they'll never catch on.

Irish Independent

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