March 30, 2012 at 2:12 PM ET
HD Guru recently published an article entitled "Is your TV watching you?" In it, we discussed the fact that new features in Samsung's top 2012 models -- including built-in microphones, HDTV camera, wireless and wired Internet connection, built-in browser with voice to text conversion, face recognition and more -- could be used to collect unprecedented personal information, as well as present a new way for hackers to invade users' lives.
We asked Samsung for a privacy statement prior to publication, but the company did not respond. Now, Samsung has given HD Guru an official comment, and shared two separate privacy policies. In the interest of transparency, here's the complete statement, with our emphasis added on key parts:
Samsung takes all concerns regarding consumer privacy and information security very seriously. In all of our Smart TVs, including our new 2012 LED and Plasma TVs featuring built-in camera and microphone components, Samsung employs industry-standard security safeguards and practices (including data encryption) to secure consumers’ personal information and prevent its unauthorized collection or use.
The camera and microphone are integrated into the TV to provide users with innovative new ways to control the TV. They may also be used for video conference and speech-to-text services offered by third parties, in which case the audio and video data is transmitted to the service providers’ servers and does not pass through Samsung servers. Images captured in order to use the facial recognition feature are stored in a secure manner on the owner’s TV only.
Should the TV owner choose not to use these features, the camera and microphone can be disabled. Users can check if the camera and microphone are activated from the TV’s settings menu. As an added precaution, the camera can be rotated and tucked into the bezel of the TV. Once tucked away, the camera only captures a black image.
Samsung says it does not upload video or voice streams into its servers, though it does sample your voice for speech command. We know third parties such as Skype use encryption for video conferencing, and Samsung says it uses the same "industry standard security" for the "personal information" it transmits.
We asked Mineola, N.Y. attorney Emouna Matin, who handles privacy cases, to explain what is meant by "personal information," and if would include video and voice samples, along with browser history and TV viewing habits.
"Samsung has to address that more properly," says Matin. Personal information can be limited pedigree information -- name, address, phone number, age, the kind of descriptive information that identifies you as an individual but doesn't say a lot about who you are -- or "stronger" information -- your voice, your personal images, websites visited, data that are not traditionally defined as "personal" but say a lot more about you.
Another issue is that Samsung effectively locks you into a privacy agreement before you can even use the Internet-based services of the TV. In part, this agreement reads:
We reserve the right to share all Personal Data and non-Personal Data with any company within the Samsung Electronics group of companies, or with any other company that operates under the Samsung brand. ... Each of the Samsung Group Companies will use your information in accordance with their own independent privacy practices.
The lengthy agreement goes on to say that your data will be carefully guarded and shared only when necessary "in order to pursue our legitimate interests or if we are required to or are permitted to do so by law." While this reads as relatively standard, the definition of "personal information" is, again, not made clear.
As for the "Group Companies" that can receive personal data from a Smart TV, Samsung says it is not every one of the 48 Samsung subsidiaries and joint ventures. For U.S. customers, only Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. in Korea, Samsung Electronics America and Samsung SDS (based in both U.S. and Germany) would share the information. For customers in other countries, their local Samsung subsidiary would also share with the Samsung Electronics Co. and SDS, which handles data globally.
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