Skip to main content

In this Jan. 5, 2015 photo, models pose with a Samsung Electronics Co.' SUHD 4K smart TV during a press conference in Seoul, South Korea. Samsung Electronics Co. on Tuesday, Feb, 10, 2015, said voice recognition technology in its Internet connected TVs can capture and transmit nearby conversations.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)The Associated Press

In an era of increasing concern about data breaches and government eavesdropping comes another worry – fears that every time you talk to your television someone is recording.

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. drew some unwanted attention to itself when it updated its terms of service for its smart TV owners with the following Orwellian phrase: "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 through your use of Voice Recognition."

It's a stark reminder that as we integrate into our homes technology that we can control by talking – from your PC, smartphone or tablet, to speakers like Amazon's Echo, to wearable smartwatches and yes, your TV or set-top box – we might not be aware of who's on the other side of the microphone.

Samsung's warning was part of a larger piece of legalese that told customers that if they used their TV's voice activated controls, those words would not stay in their living rooms, but be recorded and shared with the Korean company's computers as well as unnamed third parties, in the name of improving the service.

"It's definitely concerning," said Tamir Israel of the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic. "It raises a core issue: for the purposes of improving a product [companies] want a pretty blank cheque."

Mr. Israel and CIPPIC took note of voice control permissions back in 2012. When Apple's Siri program launched its terms of service Apple stated it could share recordings of your voice with "its subsidiaries and agents."

While it sounds nefarious, in the case of Samsung its warning could simply mean the company is using Google's Android voice control systems which require end-users to share data with the web search giant.

"Speech recognition is almost a commodity service," said Leor Grebler, CEO of Toronto's Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation, which created the voice-controlled computer Ubi. As more speech recognition software comes into the market, the price of adding it into all manner of devices is going down, Mr. Grebler said. In the case of Android, which powers Ubi, it's free. "Google's benefit is knowledge and that's the transaction that they get for giving away free speech."

Most people probably don't realize that when a Smart TV tries to recognize what you're yelling at it "a lot of it is happening on the cloud," says Mr. Grebler. Huge, distributed server networks are needed to crunch data quickly enough to avoid lag in service. To further cut down on lag, some services are experimenting with always-on passive listening, that can "predict" what you're going to ask for.

Companies behind such technologies, however, are rarely explicit about what happens to voice recordings they collect. Mr. Grebler doesn't have access to the recordings on the Ubi, but he does get text logs. Google did not respond to a request for comment on what it does with recordings obtained through Android's voice controls.

What is clear, is that multiple parties, from app makers to software partners could have access as part of the "product improvement" mandate. In at least one case, the people who work for Amazon's Mturk (Mechanical Turk), who perform a kind of human automation on tasks that computers aren't capable of, have been used to analyze voice and speech systems, and were paid a few cents at a time to listen in.

"It does greatly increase the number of potential breaches," says Mr. Israel. The more places these records exist, the more chances anyone from the NSA to malicious hackers have at accessing them. The solution, he says, may involve fixing those overly broad terms of service.

"These are quite invasive, it hasn't been comprehensively examined in terms of what's legitimate or proportionate." He says a safer set of conditions "would need a more express type of consent ... and should give people the opportunity to refuse to keep my recordings."

While Mr. Israel says the natural place to push for such changes is the courts, using Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, that can be an expensive and difficult path to take.

For now, if there is a lesson for consumers it's read the terms of service on any new device. For companies, perhaps going further than the minimum disclosure is best.

"I'm not going to give Samsung advice on how to run a business," Mr. Grebler said. "They could explain how data is captured, how it is kept. People don't like being surprised."