Privacy Implications of Listening Devices

A post (warning: offensive language) made it to the top of the /r/technology subreddit on reddit.com today that highlighted a disturbing statement from the Samsung Smart TV Privacy Policy:

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.

For the record, I don’t own a Samsung Smart TV. And this sentence doesn’t say anything that any of us wouldn’t have guessed… had we thought about it.

But… how many devices do we own today that are listening all the time? And exactly how much of what we say is being recorded and sent to 3rd parties for “voice recognition?”1

I can think of a handful of other devices which are actively listening all the time and are often found in our homes (like the Xbox One / Kinect) or even on our persons (e.g. Google Now on Android — “OK Google” anyone?) and in newer automobiles.

Samsung’s privacy policy is the first instance I can think of wherein I’ve actually read a warning that your “personal” or “sensitive” information may actually be leaking to 3rd parties.

Unnecessary Cause for Alarm?

I would imagine that the bulk of information being transmitted out of our living rooms via Samsung TVs is largely uninteresting to anyone.

But what are the policies that govern the storage (long term or short term) of this data? How sophisticated are the tools that interpret speech? Are transcripts of this speech stored separately or together with audio recordings?

What government agencies have or will gain access to either audio recordings or speech transcripts?

Perhaps the data doesn’t get stored by anyone for any longer than it takes to decide if you’ve issued a command to your device. And maybe there is no reason to even question what happens to all of the information scooped up by these listening devices.

I don’t want to sound like a conspiratorial alarmist. But on the other hand, maybe keeping some tinfoil close by isn’t such a bad idea…

Photo Credit: frank peters via BigStock

1Geek moment: “voice recognition” is likely a misnomer. It is quite commonly and quite incorrectly used to refer to technologies that recognize speech. True “voice” recognition is a much different technology than “speech” recognition, and involves identifying who the speaker is rather than what he or she is saying. If Samsung or its 3rd-party vendor does have “voice” recognition, that’s a completely different cause for alarm.

3 Replies to “Privacy Implications of Listening Devices”

  1. Steve Burnett – Denver, CO – As a newly single father of two from MI, he struggled to start over as a paint contractor in FL, going door to door. His situation was so bad, even the IRS had mercy on him.

Feeling completely hopeless, he remembered the story of King Solomon praying for wisdom. Could it be so easy?

He felt he had absolutely nothing to lose. So, as a bankrupt, divorced, high school dropout, single father of 2 young kids, now living 1250 miles away from all friends and family, started to pray for wisdom.
 And while he continues to wait for the wisdom to arrive, what did come was an insatiable desire to learn and read books… 
Thanks to God giving him the burning passion to read books, and attend seminars, (oh and winning the wife lottery) he not only cracks the success code and overcomes the struggle, but also streamlines his painting business in less than 3 years, published a how to book, then sold the company. Now he leads a business coaching company for painting contractors so he can help other businesses, like yours, to do the same.
    Steve says:

    Great post David. We have the same concerns here in the Apple camp with “Hey SIRI”.

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