Samsung and LG smart TVs share your voice data behind the fine print

Consumer Reports looks at the voice-recognition company behind the fine print

Published: February 09, 2015 04:45 PM

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Manufacturers have been producing smart TVs with voice recognition since 2012. Since then, many televisions have come to market that even monitor the viewing habits of their owners. Are these TVs capturing and transmitting highly personal conversations from inside consumer's homes and and logging their channel-surfing behavior? Plenty of people have registered exactly this concern, including this British blogger back in 2013, as well as Michael Price, of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice last year. But an article last week in The Daily Beast has caused a new uproar, focusing on language in Samsung’s Smart TV privacy policy that discloses the TV’s ability to transmit the user’s voice data to a third party. Here’s the relevant section:

“If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, 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. 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. 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.”

Nuance enables voice control and search in cars through its Dragon Drive platform

All of which raises the question: Who is this mysterious third-party, and what are they doing with your voice commands? It’s actually no big mystery. The processing for Samsung's voice-controlled TVs is handled by a company called Nuance. The partnership was announced in a press release back in 2012 when the first models were launched. A few days later Nuance publicized a deal in which it would enable the voice control for LG’s smart TVs as well. Nuance is an industry juggernaut when it comes to voice-recognition technology. The company has been working with Samsung developers to bring voice control applications to wearable devices such as Samsung’s Gear series of smart watches. Nuance is also behind Apple’s Siri personal assistant—or, at least Nuance CEO Paul Ricci said it was back in 2011. Through its Dragon Drive platform, Nuance brings voice control and smart phone integration to the telematics systems of Audi, Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz vehicles. And Nuance also has products that allow doctors to dictate and manage patient medical records via smart phone. According to a Wall Street Journal article last June, Samsung has considered buying Nuance.

Want to learn more about smart TVs? Check out our LCD, LED, OLED & plasma Ratings.

We reached out to Nuance to ask what, precisely, the company does with all the voice data it processes. The company hasn't gotten back to us yet, although Nuance posts its own privacy policy here.

For its part, Samsung issued this statement:

"Samsung takes consumer privacy very seriously. In all of our Smart TVs we employ industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers’ personal information and prevent unauthorized collection or use.

"Voice recognition, which allows the user to control the TV using voice commands, is a Samsung Smart TV feature, which can be activated or deactivated by the user. The TV owner can also disconnect the TV from the Wi-Fi network. Should consumers enable the voice recognition capability, the voice data consists of TV commands, or search sentences, only. Users can easily recognize if the voice recognition feature is activated because a microphone icon appears on the screen.

"Samsung does not retain voice data or sell it to third parties. If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV."

Consumer Reports worked with legal experts at the Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology to analyze the privacy policies for Samsung and LG smart TVs, as well as Samsung’s response to the current controversy. They have found plenty to be concerned about. "People have a fundamental right to privacy," says Alvaro Bedoya, the center’s executive director. "That right includes the ability to know that what you say in the privacy of your own home will stay that way—private. The privacy policies that cover smart TVs aren’t respecting that private space the way they should. The Samsung and LG policies say that you need to give their TVs permission to collect voice data. That much is clear. Everything else isn't."

As for Samsung’s assertion that voice data "consists of TV commands, or search sentences only" and that “Samsung does not retain voice data or sell it to third parties” Bedoya counters that the company doesn’t clearly say that in its privacy policy. "The company's new statements also choose their words carefully and in a potentially misleading way," he says. For example, even if Samsung doesn’t sell the user data collected by its TVs, the privacy policy does give it broad latitude to share your information with "trusted business partners."

The collection of user data and the widespread sharing of that data is a common practice for websites—even Consumer Reports’ privacy policy allows it—but it’s still relatively unexplored territory in the realm of consumer devices. Integrated microphones that can process our voice commands are now built into everything from always-listening smart phones to wireless speakers. Letting these connected, intelligent devices into our lives and homes requires a considerable amount of trust. One lesson electronics manufacturers might want to take away from the current controversy is to avoid ominous, imprecise language in the privacy policies of devices that we sit in front of in our living rooms. It’s strange enough to have a second party present when you think you’re watching TV by yourself—an unidentified third party is downright spooky.

—Glenn Derene

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