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I’m Terrified of My New TV: Why I’m Scared to Turn This Thing On — And You’d Be, Too

From facial recognition to personal data collection, this thing is downright scary—and so are the implications.

  • Michael Price
October 30, 2014

Cross-posted on Salon

I just bought a new TV. The old one had a good run, but after the volume got stuck on 63, I decided it was time to replace it. I am now the owner of a new “smart” TV, which prom­ises to deliver stream­ing multi­me­dia content, games, apps, social media, and Inter­net brows­ing. Oh, and TV too.

The only prob­lem is that I’m now afraid to use it. You would be too — if you read through the 46-page privacy policy.

The amount of data this thing collects is stag­ger­ing. It logs where, when, how, and for how long you use the TV. It sets track­ing cook­ies and beacons designed to detect “when you have viewed partic­u­lar content or a partic­u­lar email message.” It records “the apps you use, the websites you visit, and how you inter­act with content.” It ignores “do-not-track” requests as a considered matter of policy.

It also has a built-in camera — with facial recog­ni­tion. The purpose is to provide “gesture control” for the TV and enable you to log in to a person­al­ized account using your face. On the upside, the images are saved on the TV instead of uploaded to a corpor­ate server. On the down­side, the Inter­net connec­tion makes the whole TV vulner­able to hack­ers who have demon­strated the abil­ity to take complete control of the machine.

More troub­ling is the micro­phone. The TV boasts a “voice recog­ni­tion” feature that allows view­ers to control the screen with voice commands. But the service comes with a rather omin­ous warn­ing: “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.” Got that? Don’t say personal or sens­it­ive stuff in front of the TV.

You may not be watch­ing, but the telescreen is listen­ing.

I do not doubt that this data is import­ant to provid­ing custom­ized content and conveni­ence, but it is also incred­ibly personal, consti­tu­tion­ally protec­ted inform­a­tion that should not be for sale to advert­isers and should require a warrant for law enforce­ment to access.

Unfor­tu­nately, current law affords little privacy protec­tion to so-called “third party records,” includ­ing email, tele­phone records, and data stored in “the cloud.” Much of the data captured and trans­mit­ted by my new TV would likely fall into this category. Although one federal court of appeals has found this rule uncon­sti­tu­tional with respect to email, the prin­ciple remains a bedrock of modern elec­tronic surveil­lance.

Accord­ing to retired General David Petraeus, former head of the CIA, Inter­net-enabled “smart” devices can be exploited to reveal a wealth of personal data. “Items of interest will be located, iden­ti­fied, monitored, and remotely controlled through tech­no­lo­gies such as radio-frequency iden­ti­fic­a­tion, sensor networks, tiny embed­ded serv­ers, and energy harvester,” he reportedly told a venture capital firm in 2012. “We’ll spy on you through your dish­washer” read one head­line. Indeed, as the “Inter­net of Things” matures, house­hold appli­ances and phys­ical objects will become more networked. Your ceil­ing lights, ther­mo­stat, and wash­ing machine — even your socks — may be wired to inter­act online. The FBI will not have to bug your living room; you will do it your­self.

Of course, there is always the “dumb” option. Users may have the abil­ity to disable data collec­tion, but it comes at a cost. The device will not func­tion prop­erly or allow the use of its high-tech features. This leaves consumers with an unac­cept­able choice between keep­ing up with tech­no­logy and retain­ing their personal privacy.

We should not have to chan­nel surf worried that the TV is record­ing our beha­vior for the bene­fit of advert­isers and police. Compan­ies need to become more mind­ful of consumer privacy when decid­ing whether to collect personal data. And law enforce­ment should most certainly be required to get a warrant before access­ing it.

In the mean­time, I’ll be in the market for a new tinfoil hat and cone of silence.

Michael Price is coun­sel in the Liberty and National Secur­ity Program at the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

(Photo: Think­stock)