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Samsung's voice recording smart TVs breach US privacy law, reports claim

by Josef Kafka

Campaigners in America are claiming that the voice recording function in Samsung's new Smart TVs is in breach of American privacy law. The complaint, made by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a consumer rights group based in America, accuses Samsung of violating two different American federal privacy laws which relate to the collection, transmission and disclosure of electronic data – the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The complaint states that the voice recognition function has been described as "both unfair and deceptive" by consumers, and that the organisation "routinely intercepts and records" private conversations between users. It also makes specific reference to attempts made by Samsung to "disclaim its intrusive surveillance activities" in an in depth privacy policy, which although it states the ways in which their electronic data will be collected and disclosed, does not make amends for the harm done to users of the device. EPIC have called for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the independent agency of the United States Government established to protect consumers from harm, to start legal proceedings against Samsung and other Smart TV manufacturers whose products include a similar voice recognition feature. The debate around privacy, data collection and Smart TVs has been going on for some time, but where did it start and why is this now coming to fruition?

Samsung announced the new voice recognition functionality with great fanfare in 2013, but quickly came under fire from many of its users for what they deemed an 'Orwellian policy' whereby data collected by the voice recognition function is sent unencrypted over the internet to third parties. Samsung had originally stated that this data was encrypted, but was later forced to change its privacy policy when these complaints were made. Additionally the voice recognition function, powered by third party software built by Nuance Communications, is not capable of discriminating between private conversation and commands meant for the control centre of the Smart TV. This means that everything users say whilst the function is turned on is collected, stored and transmitted to third parties unencrypted over the internet, "regardless of whether it is related to the provision of the service". Although the debate has been going on for some time, EPIC now believe that they have enough of a case to approach the FTC and ask for an in depth enquiry into Samsung and other devices which include similar software to ensure that they are in full compliance with privacy laws. It is not clear yet as to whether the FTC will agree with the claims made by EPIC that Samsung are in breach of federal law, but we should be getting a clear statement from them very soon. A spokesperson for Samsung has denied the claims made by EPIC in this formal complaint, stating that they are "not correct" and do not "reflect the actual features of our Smart TV". They also said that they take "consumer privacy very seriously" and that their products are always "designed with privacy in mind”.

This debate looks to be the first of many regarding data collection and privacy laws related to home entertainment and other electronic devices. Many experts are predicting that the 'internet of things', where every piece of electronic equipment is connected to the internet and can collect, process and transfer data, could become a reality within the next decade. This means that not only will we see more and more of these cases appearing over that time period, but also that the outcome of this one could set a precedent and have a significant impact on those to come.

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