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Worried about spying smart TVs? Try a home theater PC

Lucian Constantin | Feb. 10, 2015
In the wake of revelations about eavesdropping Samsung and LG smart TVs, don't forget the wide world of HTPC options available.

Reports that new Samsung TVs can capture personal information with their voice recognition feature has sparked concern about what critics perceive as digital spying by so-called smart devices.

Last week, online magazine The Daily Beast spotted wording in Samsung's privacy policy that suggests users should be careful when they speak near their smart TVs. This generated buzz on Twitter and other sites, including comparisons to Big Brother behavior from George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984.

The SmartTV Supplement for Samsung's global privacy policy says that to provide the voice recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted to a third-party service that converts speech to text, and that Samsung may also retain these voice commands and texts to improve the technology.

However, the most concerning part appears to be this: "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."

Samsung is not the only smart TV manufacturer collecting this type of data. In Samsung's case, users have the option to disable the collection.

In November 2013, the owner of a smart TV made by LG Electronics discovered that the device was collecting information about his viewing habits, even when the "collection of watching info" feature was turned off. Worse, the TV also sent back to LG's servers the names of files stored on external media devices and even network shares.

After his report was picked up by the media, the company issued a firmware update to stop the data transfer if the collection feature was turned off. However, a few months later, it issued a new update that asked customers to accept a revamped privacy policy that gave the company the right to collect viewing, voice and device usage information and to transfer it overseas, to countries with potentially fewer privacy protections.

"You do not have to agree to the Privacy Policy but if you do not, not all Smart TV Services will be available to you," the company's policy says. This effectively forces users to decide between sharing their usage data with LG and having their smart TVs dumbed down.

These increasingly aggressive data collection practices by TV manufacturers, which hope to make some advertising revenue on the side -- the LG policy says the data can be used for personalized advertising -- raise the question of whether smart TVs are really worth the privacy sacrifice, especially when alternatives are available.

Many smart TVs provide less functionality than dedicated home theater PCs (HTPCs) connected to regular TVs. And HTPCs these days are no longer expensive, bulky or power hungry.

 

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