Maybe Your New TV Is Watching You

It’s the entire point, really. New smart TVs from Samsung boast video cameras with facial-recognition software and microphones with speech-recognition software. They can tell who’s in the room, understand spoken commands, and be controlled with gestures. That’s great news for those of us who can never find the remote, but made our friends over at HD Guru wonder: is there anyone behind that camera watching us back?

Having an always-connected camera in your home that periodically checks in with Samsung’s cloud servers raises all kinds of scary and slightly creepy questions. Is it possible for someone at Samsung, or a third-party app developer, to watch what goes on in your living room? Is the facial-recognition data, along with household members’ personal viewing habits, cross-referenced with the TV’s serial number and your warranty registration information anywhere? And what happens when someone (inevitably) figures out how to hack these TVs? HD Guru sent these questions, along with others, to Samsung a few weeks ago, and have received no response.

But wait. Can’t you even tell when the camera is on? Nope, their tests showed:

During our demo, unless the face recognition learning feature was activated, there was no indication as to whether the camera (such as a red light) and audio mics are on. And as far as the microphone is concerned the is no way to physically disconnect it or be assured it is not picking up your voice when you don’t intend it to do so.

That’s… not at all comforting.

Is Your New HDTV Watching You? [HD Guru]

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  1. winstonthorne says:

    Orwell would get a chuckle out of this.

    • cosmic.charlie says:

      All they are missing is adding a feature that never lets you turn it off. But wait, from my experience most people volunteer to do this anyways.

      Didn’t Brandbury also have this as a theme in Fahrenheit 451: A wall size TV that you could talk to and interact with?

      • KillerBee says:

        Yes, but so did McFly in BTTF2.

      • winstonthorne says:

        Most of these modern TV’s already default to “Standby” rather than turning all the way off. Gotta unplug the sucker.

        After you unplug it, there’s still enough juice in the capacitors to administer a pretty nasty shock (or actually power it for a few seconds – that’s why it kinda “fades off” if there’s a power outage rather than just going dark instantly like a simpler appliance).

      • LMA says:

        Not only a wall sized one, but ultlmately, to show your status, the Good Citizen would buy FOUR walls worth of two-way televisions so that you could be completely absorbed and controlled at all time. And oh, it felt so good …

        I’m beginning to think that “451″ and “1984″ were not works of fiction, but documentaries delivered to us by a time-traveller.

        Start memorizing your books now, everyone. I’m John Cheever’s “Bullet Park.”

    • madcatcasey says:

      So would Rockwell.

    • BackInBlack says:

      That was my very first thought when I read the headline— “Orwell was just a couple decades early with his title.” I’d somehow never read 1984 until the Clinton administration when I heard Hillary say during an interview that it was “the most influential book” she had ever read. Then I felt a need to read it to find out why… and I did.

  2. Press1forDialTone says:

    Well that’s it for me, Samsung is on my s*** list, What a naive question.
    Of COURSE, there is someone on the other side of those cameras and
    mics and just so you know, if you have -cable- television, the cable companies
    monitor enormous amounts of data coming back from their equipment in your
    home. Why do you think they wanted EVERY TV to have a box attached to it,
    however small? Duh! Those boxes send back when they are on or off, what
    channel they are tuned to, how long and what time of day. We are ALL Nielsen
    families folks. The cable companies make millions of dollars selling that data.
    It may or may NOT be anonymous, who could ever really find out. Are you enjoying
    that excellent reception or high download/upload speed. Hmmmmm, HD that’s the
    box I want…..

    • Maltboy wanders aimlessly through the Uncanny Valley says:

      “Of COURSE, there is someone on the other side of those cameras and
      mics”

      Yeah because they have nothing better to do with their money than hire tens of thousands of people to monitor millions of fat guys in their underwear watching sports shows.

      • Mambru says:

        Yeah but once in a while you might hit on a hot person, and now you know where to log in all the time

      • Talmonis says:

        People? heh, they won’t hire people. They’ll design a program that takes inventory of every item you have in the room. What your estimated height/weight is. Gender. Then sell that information to advertising companies. And that’s just the video camera with facial recog software. Add in the microphone listening, and a program for that. Talking with the wife about having kids? here come the Diaper ads & Marital aid commercials. Yelling at the kids for playing with your gun collection? Here come social services for overhearing “trigger” words.

    • Cat says:

      Although I think your tin foil hat may be fitting a bit too snugly, cable companies can and do collect data from set top boxes.

      If it concerns you, cut the cord: I have no cable, just an antenna. There is no data to track. (And take off that hat.)

    • ClemsonEE says:

      Dear Lord you’re paranoid. And no, they don’t use us as Nielson families; else, good shows wouldn’t be cancelled.

    • NeverLetMeDown says:

      The cable companies wanted to put a box on every TV because by doing so they could make their network radically more efficient and keep up with the satellite guys in offering HD channels.

      Some operators (AT&T, Dish) do sell the box usage data, but most don’t, largely because they haven’t figured out a good way to do it.

      • Cat says:

        The real reason the cable companies want to put a box on every TV because by doing so they could make $5 per TV set.

        And no box is required to get HD on cable systems. The pay TV companies just like it that way, because it allows them to restrict or charge extra for HD.

        • NeverLetMeDown says:

          A box on every TV (or nearly every TV) definitely IS required if you want to shut down space-hogging analog channels to make room for more HD channels, unless you want the customers with legacy analog TVs to lose service. No different from the digital transition in broadcast, where customers who didn’t want to buy new digital TVs had to get a digital converter.

          Also, in the markets where Comcast has gone all digital, they gave the digital converters away for free.

          • Cat says:

            No, it’s called clear QAM and it’s digital. You DO NOT need a box to view cable on a digittal TV- unless the cable company makes it so.

            QAM is in just about every tuner made these days. Boxes just allow the customer to view scrambled digital content, and allow those with analog TV sets to use a digital signal. Cable companies are now fighting to get the FCC to allow scrambling on all channels – including the basic tier “locals only” channels they are prohibited from scrambling now.

            Cable boxes also prevent consumer from buying and using their own products, such as DVRs. Customers are forced to use only those devices provided by the cable company instead of buying something like a Boxee. And of course, you can’t buy your DVR, you have to lease it. Forever, even after it’s been paid for several times over.

            • NeverLetMeDown says:

              Cat, did you read my post?

              1. You’re right that, IF YOU HAVE A TV WITH A DIGITAL TUNER, there’s no _technical_ reason why the cable operator requires you to have a box. They could transmit all their programming unencrypted.

              2. The box requirement is for customers with TVs that DON’T have a digital tuner, which is still a large portion of the installed base (the large majority of those built before 2007).

              3. While a cable company certainly could transmit their programming unencrypted, and trust customers to pay for the service, there’s excellent evidence that a large portion of people, when given the opportunity to steal a service with minimal chance of getting caught, will do so. Hence, cable operators encrypt the signal.

              4. Finally, the idea that you can’t use your own DVR is going to come to a big surprise to everyone out there with a TiVo. You need a CableCard to make it work, of course, because of the encryption issue mentioned earlier.

              Bottom line, in some markets, cable companies have gone all digital (requiring a box on each TV) because (a) they want to shut off analog channels that take up a huge amount of bandwidth with no consumer benefit, and (b) they want (reasonably, I think) customers to pay for the service they’re getting.

        • dangermike says:

          No box *should* be required but the signals are typically encrypted so you’ll only pick up broadcast and analog basic cable channels if you plug the cable directly into your tv set.

          (edit: I can see in you next post that you seem to know this.)

  3. sufreak says:

    Any device with a camera should have a ‘shade’ that is covering the lens until it is activated and on. Logitech had a camera with a manual cover, which was nice. A red light may be needed too.

    • winstonthorne says:

      With the cost of these freakin’ things I feel like you need to put out a red light of your own just to afford one…

  4. Ben says:

    I always put tape over video cameras in laptops, and I point my desktop webcam towards the wall when I’m not using it.

    • DuckNCover says:

      The first thing I do when I got my laptop was put black electrical tape over the camera and microphone. I don’t use the camera ever anyway so it’s not a huge inconvenience.

    • Jawaka says:

      lol my wife is paranoid and does that with her laptop.

  5. Lucky225 says:
  6. webweazel says:

    Ohhh lordy, it’s all downhill from here. If people accept this and it starts to become prevalent, it’s the beginning of the end. This damn tinfoil hat just won’t cut it any more. Now I gotta make an armored suit…………….*rip, rip, rip* “Where’s the damn duct tape!”

    On the side, nothing a basic hole saw and some wire snips couldn’t take care of. Or just not connecting it to the internet anyway.

  7. scoopie77 says:

    I’m 100% sure Microsoft is watching me on my Kinect.

    • NeverLetMeDown says:

      They are, and you look like an idiot jumping around and waving your arms like that.

      I’m positive there’s a room somewhere at Microsoft lined with TV screens, where employees who need to take a break go, watch people use their Kinects, and laugh their asses off.

      Full disclosure, I have a Kinect. Don’t see the use for gestures, but voice commands in Mass Effect 3 are pretty awesome.

  8. chiieddy says:

    This is why electrical tape was invented.

  9. kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

    Interesting.

    I wrote a story about a video voyeur a while back ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005EH5UMC/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=hippobirdie-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B005EH5UMC ), but this would make my protagonist’s job a lot easier.

    May be time for a rewrite.

  10. elephantattack says:

    “It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself–anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face…; was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime…”

  11. dragonfire81 says:

    In consumerist America, TV watches you!

  12. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDave‚Ñ¢ says:

    According to Alex Jones, the Kinect camera is always on and sending recordings of your biometric data, such as gait, to the main servers at MicroSoft, which is really a Government agency, and this will be used to either send “terminator drones” to your door to make sure they kill the correct person, or as a way to verify yourself to gain access when the United States takes over the internet, and every “citizen” must log into it.

  13. newmie says:

    I would never buy a tv that had this sort of crap in it. Damn these assholes who come up with these things.

    • duncanblackthorne says:

      I second this. All I want is a monitor, basically.

    • LMA says:

      You say this like you might not already have one watching you …

      It’s just one of many reasons why this Luddite sits in the cathode ray glow of a cast-off televisions I got on Freecycle once my own 25+ year old Zenith gave up the ghost.

  14. Straspey says:

    Ummm….

    Plug your spy-tv and cable box into a surge protector.

    When not in use – turn the power off on the surge protector.

    Even spy cameras and personal-data-gathering cable boxes cannot operate without electricity.

    • consumed says:

      I wouldn’t be so sure of that. A big TV like that could potentially hide a battery similar to the one in your cell phone – and we know cell phones these days usually have 1 or more cameras. How do you know the TV doesn’t have a backup battery and still collects your video data when the power is off?

  15. Kuri says:

    In other news the sale of electrical tape has sky rocketed to unprecedented numbers.

  16. missy070203 says:

    looks like I’ll have to stop having sex in the living room…..

    • The Porkchop Express says:

      Or start having sex in the livingroom? right on the black leather cou…I mean on whatever you have in there.

  17. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    I don’t like this at all. It’s none of their damned business what goes on in my living room. And what’s worse, you don’t know the camera is activated or the audio mics are on? If they insist on adding this feature, it should be easily turned off by the customer.

    What’s next? Your TV will report you for smoking pot in your living room? Or eating too much ice cream, or putting too much salt on your popcorn? Or if you make a negative statement about a politician you see on a news show?

    Bad, bad idea for consumers and citizens in general.

  18. ancientone567 says:

    Damn that is creepy. We should never accept cameras or mics in our tv sets. NEVER! Are people really that dumb? Yes. No go ahead. Please bug my home. In fact, I will pay for the expensive parts. LOL PLZ

    • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

      Some people use it for videoconferencing. Difficult to videoconference without both network connectivity and a camera.

      A lot of computers also come with built in cameras.

      • ancientone567 says:

        Computers, phones, ipads I am ok with because you are well aware. However TV is a whole different dog. FYI I always unplug the video on my computer after I am done with it.

        • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

          Right, I get that. But for many people, this is a desired feature, and they are quite aware of how to activate and deactivate.

  19. Boo LaRue says:

    This is precisely why I unplug my Xbox after use, and also disconnect the Kinect sensor. I also move the sensor from its view of the room when not in use.

    • Tacojelly says:

      Why not just have a powerstrip for your entertainment center and switch it off when you’re not using it. Then you look like a big environmentalist instead of a crazy that’s scared of your xbox.

  20. Tacojelly says:

    You people are too paranoid, what are they possibly going to see besides hours of blank faces and the occasional dude jerking off.

  21. duncanblackthorne says:

    DO. NOT. WANT.

  22. mcgyver210 says:

    The US Government has already admitted they are & will be using gadgets in our homes against us since we are the enemy now as far as they are concerned. Smart gadgets meant to make our lives easier will actually hurt our privacy in our private homes probably without any real probable cause or warrants.

  23. HogwartsProfessor says:

    Oh, HELL nah. I’m creeped out enough by my laptop webcam that I keep a little piece of electrical tape over it. No way I want one of these weirdo TVs.

  24. Naked-Gord-Program says:

    Will they at least put the streams up on the net (ad supported or via subscription) so we watch everyone else while they watch us watching everyone else?

  25. FrugalFreak says:

    nope, if it is spying on Us, do you think they will admit it?