Your TV may be watching you

Story highlights

  • Bruce Schneier: Growing number of everyday devices are listening in
  • This data is a treasure trove for criminals, he says

Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author. He is the CTO of Co3 Systems, Inc., and his latest book is "Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World." He blogs at schneier.com and tweets @schneierblog. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Earlier this week, we learned that Samsung televisions are eavesdropping on their owners. If you have one of their Internet-connected smart TVs, you can turn on a voice command feature that saves you the trouble of finding the remote, pushing buttons and scrolling through menus. But making that feature work requires the television to listen to everything you say. And what you say isn't just processed by the television; it may be forwarded over the Internet for remote processing. It's literally Orwellian.

This discovery surprised people, but it shouldn't have. The things around us are increasingly computerized, and increasingly connected to the Internet. And most of them are listening.
    Our smartphones and computers, of course, listen to us when we're making audio and video calls. But the microphones are always there, and there are ways a hacker, government, or clever company can turn those microphones on without our knowledge. Sometimes we turn them on ourselves. If we have an iPhone, the voice-processing system Siri listens to us, but only when we push the iPhone's button. Like Samsung, iPhones with the "Hey Siri" feature enabled listen all the time. So do Android devices with the "OK Google" feature enabled, and so does an Amazon voice-activated system called Echo. Facebook has the ability to turn your smartphone's microphone on when you're using the app.
    Even if you don't speak, our computers are paying attention. Gmail "listens" to everything you write, and shows you advertising based on it. It might feel as if you're never alone. Facebook does the same with everything you write on that platform, and even listens to the things you type but don't post. Skype doesn't listen -- we think -- but as Der Spiegel notes, data from the service "has been accessible to the NSA's snoops" since 2011.
    So the NSA certainly listens. It listens directly, and it listens to all these companies listening to you. So do other countries like Russia and China, which we really don't want listening so closely to their citizens.
    It's not just the devices that listen; most of this data is transmitted over the Internet. Samsung sends it to what was referred to as a "third party" in its policy statement. It later revealed that third party to be a company you've never heard of -- Nuance -- that turns the voice into text for it. Samsung promises that the data is erased immediately. Most of the other companies that are listening promise no such thing and, in fact, save your data for a long time. Governments, of course, save it, too.
    This data is a treasure trove for criminals, as we are learning again and again as tens and hundreds of millions of customer records are repeatedly stolen. Last week, it was reported that hackers had accessed the personal records of some 80 million Anthem Health customers and others. Last year, it was Home Depot, JP Morgan, Sony and many others. Do we think Nuance's security is better than any of these companies? I sure don't.
    At some level, we're consenting to all this listening. A single sentence in Samsung's 1,500-word privacy policy, the one most of us don't read, stated: "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." Other services could easily come with a similar warning: Be aware that your e-mail provider knows what you're saying to your colleagues and friends and be aware that your cell phone knows where you sleep and whom you're sleeping with -- assuming that you both have smartphones, that is.
    The Internet of Things is full of listeners. Newer cars contain computers that record speed, steering wheel position, pedal pressure, even tire pressure -- and insurance companies want to listen. And, of course, your cell phone records your precise location at all times you have it on -- and possibly even when you turn it off. If you have a smart thermostat, it records your house's temperature, humidity, ambient light and any nearby movement. Any fitness tracker you're wearing records your movements and some vital signs; so do many computerized medical devices. Add security cameras and recorders, drones and other surveillance airplanes, and we're being watched, tracked, measured and listened to almost all the time.
    It's the age of ubiquitous surveillance, fueled by both Internet companies and governments. And because it's largely happening in the background, we're not really aware of it.
    This has to change. We need to regulate the listening: both what is being collected and how it's being used. But that won't happen until we know the full extent of surveillance: who's listening and what they're doing with it. Samsung buried its listening details in its privacy policy -- they have since amended it to be clearer -- and we're only having this discussion because a Daily Beast reporter stumbled upon it. We need more explicit conversation about the value of being able to speak freely in our living rooms without our televisions listening, or having e-mail conversations without Google or the government listening. Privacy is a prerequisite for free expression, and losing that would be an enormous blow to our society.