Privacy Advocates Call For Investigation Into Samsung Smart TVs

Samsung’s Smart TVs have come under scrutiny recently after people learned the company’s privacy policy hinted that things we say within earshot of our televisions may be recorded and uploaded to third-party transcription services. While executives for the company have worked to calm people’s fears, a privacy group is now asked federal regulators to take a look into the matter.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to open an investigation into whether Samsung illegally recorded private conversations through its smart TVs.

According to the complaint [PDF], EPIC alleges that Samsung’s remote voice recognition software – which allows users to change channels, increase volume and initiate other operations by using their voice  – violates several federal laws put in place to protect consumer privacy.

“Samsung routinely intercepts and records the private communications of consumers in their homes,” EPIC says in the complaint. “Consumers who have learned of this practices have described it is as both ‘unfair’ and ‘deceptive.’ Samsung’s attempts to disclaim its intrusive surveillance activities by means of a ‘privacy notice’ do not diminish the harm to American consumers.”

The group claims the company violated the FTC Act by misleading consumers when it initially claimed voice communications were encrypted before being transmuted to the third-party service. However, Samsung backtracked and admitted that it does not encrypt the recordings.

EPIC’s complaint also claims the company violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which regulates the collection of information from minors; the Cable Act which prohibits the collection of “personally identifiable information concerning any subscriber without the prior written or electronic consent of the subscriber concerned”; and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which prohibits interception and disclosure of electronic communications.

The privacy group’s claims center on a passage in Samsung’s privacy policy that states “some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you.”

Samsung attempted to clarify the privacy policy passage, saying that it will “collect interactive voice commands only when you make a specific search request to the Smart TV by clicking the activation button either on the remote control or on your screen and speaking tint the microphone on the remote control.”

Still, EPIC’s complaint to the FTC cites several privacy experts who have continuously warned that the recording software is “always-on” and Samsung’s statements are misleading to consumers.

“Samsung needs to understand that not everyone wants to be spied on by their TV,” Emma Carr, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, is cited as saying in the complaint. “It is outrageous that the company has even stated in its own privacy policy that if the TV’s owner does decide not to share their private information, then the company may still take the information anyway. This leaves users with no knowledge or control over where your information goes or who has access to it and that is simply unacceptable.”

EPIC seeks to halt Samsung’s practice of transmitting voice recordings to third parties and determine whether other companies employ similar practices.

“It is incumbent upon the Federal Trade Commission to take action in this matter, and to enjoin Samsung and other companies that engage in similar practices, from such unlawful activities,” the complaint states.

The New York Times Bits blog reports that in the past, EPIC has filed similar complaints with the FTC over the privacy practices of Google and Facebook. Those tech companies eventually settled their cases with federal regulators.

The Consumer Electronics Association came out in defense of Samsung Thursday afternoon, calling EPIC’s complaint an overreaction.

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CEA, says in a statement that EPIC mischaracterizes Samsung’s voice-recognition technology as an attempt at pervasive surveillance of the home and undermines the industry’s efforts to earn consumers’ trust.

“We shouldn’t confuse voice-recognition applications with ‘spying.'” Shapiro says. “Increasingly, voice recognition powers the features behind some of our most innovative consumer products such as smartphones, gaming systems and car navigation systems. Companies use cloud-based infrastructure to provide these services because it’s powerful, efficient, lowers costs and saves energy. Transferring data from a user’s device to the cloud and back is a necessary part of providing these innovative services.”

Privacy Group Files F.T.C. Complaint Against Samsung’s Voice-Operated TVs [New York Times Bits Blog]