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Helping consumers make informed decisions
SECURITY SHELF

Helping consumers make informed decisions 

Recent news that Samsung Smart TVs provide voice recognition capability by sending captured sounds to a third party for analysis apparently caught some people by surprise. In fairness to Samsung, they clearly disclosed this in their privacy policy:

“If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some interactive voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service provider (currently, Nuance Communications, Inc.) that converts your interactive voice commands to text and to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features.Samsung will collect your 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 into the microphone on the remote control.”

So why the furor in February 2015 when, according to archive.org, Samsung had this in their privacy policy for at least 8 months? The answer: People don’t read privacy policies.

Consumers must take responsibility for the products that they bring into their homes. If a TV, tablet, phone, or game console feature can be activated by speaking, it obviously must be listening all the time. In Samsung’s case the real objection is that the device sends audio to a third party for recognition instead of doing it locally.

Product manufacturers need to communicate more clearly with their customers. It is obvious from the privacy policy published on their website that Samsung had no intent to deceive. They also likely have good technical reasons for offloading voice recognition to the cloud; TVs lack the processing power required for accurate voice recognition and fine-tuning algorithms in the cloud is much easier than upgrading TV firmware. Other devices, including Apple products, take the same approach. Yet some customers were surprised and felt that the product was spying on them. And that’s bad for business.

It is tempting to suggest that governments have a role to play in regulating these new technologies. Many classes of products are regulated and government efforts to ensure critical information is provided to the public in a standard format is often successful. For example, “Nutrition Facts”make it easy to compare products and help consumers better understand the food they are eating. But unless governments agree on an international standard, compliance will be unnecessarily complicated and expensive.

As the explosive growth of connected products continues, consumer privacy will be repeatedly thrust to the forefront. Consumers deserve to know what information their Internet provider, car, fridge, thermostat, phone, and television collect, where it is stored, how it is used, and who has access to it. Manufacturers and service providers who fail to effectively communicate this information do so at their own peril. Bad publicity, class action suits, and prosecution for violating privacy laws are predicable outcomes.

The best approach to addressing consumer security and privacy is to engage an international standards body to create a standard that helps consumers understand what information a product or service collects, and what it does with it. As with food labels, this information should be up front and not hidden in pages of privacy policy or in the fine print. Only then can consumers make informed decisions.

Have a security question that you’d like answered in a future column? Email eric.jacksch@iticonline.ca.

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