The Listening TV: The tables have turned

Talking to a newly installed TV at home is a recent experience of mine. As a family, we were taking it in turns to ‘get to know’ the device through voice activation. After my several failed attempts using the command ‘Turn On’, I followed the instructions of my excited mother as she presented this TV to me like a new sibling. She told me to be kinder to the TV, use a softer voice and say, ‘Hello Samsung’, before ‘Turn On’ and hey presto the screen activated. This TV didn’t just want my voice; it demanded my manners.

Smart technology is an industry growing at a momentous rate. You can now purchase a bed that knows your heart rate and movements, or a fridge that suggests recipes based on what’s inside it. Lifting and closing a toilet lid too much for you? Fear not – a smart toilet lets you operate the lid via your smartphone.

New technologies are promising to make our lives easier and our bodies healthier, but the question of whether they are making us safer keeps hitting the headlines. There are concerns that with more information being stored about our daily activities, the floodgates will be open to a host of third parties to access this information. James Scott of Microsoft Research explains “with a smart system, the whole point is that when you use it, it learns about you, that learning intrinsically involves some sort of logging”.

Using a smart device to make life smoother comes with the price of stepping into a grey area where privacy is concerned. Where is the information about your sleeping patterns, eating habits and toilet trips going? And to whom? In terms of these devices, security may be of little concern to users. What’s the worst that can happen? A technophile might hack your smartphone and open and close your toilet lid – scary.

But recently Samsung have lifted a different lid, on a potentially more sinister privacy issue. The company has warned customers about discussing personal information in front of their smart TV. When the TV is on the setting ‘listen’ so that it can respond to commands, the company has said that the device may ‘hear’ conversations and share these with third parties. Samsung’s privacy policy states:  “If your spoken words include personal information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.” A stark reminder of the ‘telescreens’ in George Orwell’s 1984 is uncomfortably clear.

For some, privacy concerns are trumped by the life changing benefits of smart technology. Of note, the Senior Lifestyle System is a smart technology offering a lifeline to independence; it uses wireless sensor nodes throughout the home to log, track and share lifestyle information of senior citizens with other members of the family. Everything is automatically logged, from the amount the individual is eating to more gradual changes such as when the individual is beginning to move at a slower pace. All this information is recorded and logged on a handy little app for the senior’s citizen’s family to view. Think of it as a kind of Sims version of your nan. Despite this looking like a rather patronising and bizarre system in the eyes of some people, it has granted peace of mind for countless families and provided a golden opportunity for older people to continue to live independently. That IS smart.

With smart technology development showing no signs of slowing, there will undoubtedly be an expanse of novel ways in which we can benefit from them, but will the compromise to our confidentiality also expand? While our homes are becoming smarter, we must become wiser to potential security risks or the ‘privacy of our own homes’ may become a thing of the past. It now seems that as a family, we weren’t just getting to know our TV – it was getting to know us.

Clare O’Leary

 Feature Illustration: Danny Wilson

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