Is your TV spying on you? Maybe.
By Kristian Bland
The “internet of things” has been growing rapidly over the past few years, with “smart” functionality being added to everything from televisions to refrigerators, toasters to doorbells, and everything in between. Such devices can offer great benefits, such as unlocking your home for a guest when you’re away or recording someone stealing a package from your doorstep. Other smart devices? Well, not so much.
In a rush to connect everything possible to the internet, manufacturers have come up with some pretty bizarre products. Take the Quirky Egg Minder, for instance. If you’ve ever been frustrated because you weren’t able to connect a tray of eggs to the internet so your smartphone could receive an alert when you were running low, this is the product for you. Most people rely on their own two eyes to see how many eggs they have left whenever they remove one. But they’re just cavemen afraid of entering the technological wonderland of the modern age. Right?
There are also water bottles that will alert your phone to remind you to take a sip — you know, just in case the most basic biological functions of your own body fail to let you know when you’re thirsty. While you’re worrying about your body, maybe you can pick up a smart toothbrush to use after you’ve eaten a meal with your smart fork that vibrates when you’re eating too fast.
The internet is a weird place.
While most of these things are a little silly and mostly harmless, anything connected to the internet is vulnerable to being hacked. Everything connected is. It’s just the way things are, and you should be aware of the risks whenever you open up a new digital door to your home.
Smart TVs can do everything from report your viewing habits to marketing teams to monitoring everything you say and do in front of them. The last option usually comes in the form of a hacker gaining access to a vulnerable device. But everyone has had the experience of mentioning a product in conversation and then being shown an endless stream of advertisements for it the next day.
Does this mean your devices are secretly recording everything you say so they can try to sell you whatever you were just talking about? Probably not, but they could. The functionality is there.
However, what’s usually happening in these cases has to do with something called “predictive analytics.” Everything you do online is tracked and stored and mined and analyzed. Then all that data gets packaged up and served to a machine-learning algorithm that uses it to predict what you’re interested in — often before you’re even aware of it yourself. So, when you see an ad for that thing you were just talking about yesterday, it’s probably not because your phone was listening; it’s just because some predictive analytics algorithm out there was able to guess what you’re thinking about with stunning accuracy.
It’s probably wrong a lot of the time, though. It’s only when it’s right that we take notice because it seems like too much a coincidence.
All that being said, there are risks to bringing a smart device into your home. Once inside your network, a hacker can spread from your TV to other smart devices and the next thing you know, some creep in Finland is watching your baby sleep while whispering scary things through the monitor.
There are ways to protect yourself. The first thing everyone should do with a new smart device is also the thing most people never do with a new smart device: change the login credentials. Change the default passwords or you’re basically leaving your front door wide open and inviting everyone in the world into your home.
After that, make sure you regularly check for and install any updates from the manufacturer. These updates usually contain patches that plug various holes in the device’s security. So keeping everything current is a great way to make sure any recently discovered vulnerabilities have been taken care of.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you might be agreeing to be spied upon simply by using a smart device. As part of the data-mining motivation that’s behind most apps and smart devices, it’s important that companies are able to monitor what you do with their devices and software. To that end, they often bury specific terminology in their terms of service that allow them to keep tabs on what you’re doing. Data is the biggest, most lucrative commodity in the world today, and many devices and apps only exist to gather as much of it as they can — both legally when you agree to it and illegally when you don’t.
Any voice-activated devices, including Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, have to keep their microphones on and listening at all times or they won’t be able to wake up when you shout at them from across the room to stop playing that alarm you forgot to turn off. Anything with an open microphone has the potential to record everything it hears, and both Amazon and Apple have faced lawsuits alleging they unlawfully store and monitor those recordings. The same thing applies to everything with voice controls and microphones, including televisions.
So, is your TV actually spying on you? Probably.