EPIC Battles Samsung Over Smart TVs

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Samsung over its Smart TVs, which record and share viewer voice commands with a third party.

Samsung has a privacy notice that informs TV buyers that the sets can record and share voice commands with a third party.

"To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some interactive voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service provider...that converts your interactive voice commands to text and 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." 

EPIC says that the disclosure is not sufficient and does not mitigate the harm to consumers of having their private communications "intercepted" and shared.

EPIC has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the practice and enjoin Samsung from "intercepting," recording and sharing private conversations. It has a history with Samsung, having filed a complaint in 2013 over a Samsung mobile app it argued did not give consumers enough choice over data collection. The group also points out its complaints against Google Buzz and Facebook helped lead to FTC settlements with both over privacy issues.

Samsung says the TV collects "interactive voice commands" only "when you make a specific search request to the Smart TV by clicking the activation button either on the remote control or on your screen and speaking into the microphone on the remote control."

But EPIC says as a practical matter that means after the voice recognition feature is activated, everything a user says in front of the TV is recorded and transmitted over the Internet "regardless of whether it is a voice command or not."

EPIC says that the Voice Recognition policy also warns 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."

At a Senate hearing two weeks ago, Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and others raised concerns about the Samsung Smart TVs, while Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a member of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, has written Samsung asking for information on how it treats and protects the data it shares with third parties.

“The claims made by EPIC are not correct and do not reflect the actual features of our Smart TV," Samsung said in a statement. "Samsung takes consumer privacy very seriously and our products are designed with privacy in mind.”

As to its response to Sen. Franken, the company said: “Samsung supports Senator Franken’s commitment to consumer privacy and we appreciate the opportunity to respond to his inquiries regarding the voice recognition feature on our Smart TVs. We employ industry-standard security safeguards and practices, including data encryption, to secure consumers’ personal information and prevent unauthorized collection or use.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.