Samsung SmartTV eavesdropping flap overblown

Samsung's SmartTV may share data from your conversations with third parties. But is it really a big deal when that third party is likely a software provider converting speech to text?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Samsung's SmartTV is allegedly listening to your conversations and sharing data with third parties. The rub is that any use of a cloud service or hosting arrangement would qualify as a third party.

In other words, the hubbub over Samsung's SmartTV listening to your conversations may be a wee bit overblown.

The Daily Beast noted a sentence in Samsung's privacy policy and framed it as a smoking gun. "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."


Sounds nefarious right?

Now read the entire part of the privacy policy that leads into that smoking sentence.

If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. 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.

If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands. While Samsung will not collect your spoken word, Samsung may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it.

Based on previous customer references, that "third party" that converts speech to text is Nuance. Nuance provides voice recognition software and services to a host of companies. It offers its wares on-premise and through the cloud. As most of us know, the deployment model in favor is the cloud, also known as a third party unless Samsung buys Nuance.

In any case, more of your gadgets are going to listen to you. That's how these devices respond to what you're saying. Any company that has voice recognition and has to move data to a data center or cloud that it doesn't own is going to have a third party clause. In other words, processing your ramblings for voice features is one thing. Listening and sharing data with advertisers is another. The former, which seems to be what the SmartTV flap is about, is no big deal. The latter gets sticky.

In Nuance's first quarter, the company added the following design wins. BMW, Bosch, ChuangZu, DoCoMo, Ford, Fujitsu, Harman, Honda, Huawei, LG, Mahindra, Mitac, Motorola, Optus, Panasonic, Peugeot, Pioneer, Renault, Samsung, Subaru, Thales, Vivo, and ZTE. Your cars will obviously be listening to you at some point too.

What you may wind up seeing is companies providing voice services sticking with their own clouds. Microsoft's Xbox also listens to you, but Microsoft has outlined its privacy policies pretty well. In any case, rest assured Xbox is using Microsoft's Azure service. Apple's Siri likely runs off an Apple-owned data center. And Google's voice powered toys run off its own cloud.

Bottom line: With cloud computing it's highly likely that your data is going to run into a third party somewhere. What matters is how that data is protected in transit and kept safe overall.

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