Are your Smart TVs, Phones and Speakers spying on you?

Smart Devices Spying on You

We are surrounded by smart devices. It all started with cellphones but now we have smart speakers, smart TVs, smart cameras, smart refrigerators, there is even a smart microwave. It seems like many new appliances and home devices are incorporating some type of assistant, so we can give it orders and it can aid us in some way or another. The big question is: Are these devices listening to more than just our requests? How much privacy can we expect in our own homes? Let’s break it down by device.

Smart TVs

smart tv with channels and apps

Smart TVs come in different flavors, but the principle is the same. It has some kind of operating system just like a computer and it’s connected to the internet. This operating system allows it to install apps for streaming services like Netflix or other functions and of course, many of them now come equipped with a microphone so you can just command it with your voice.

The main problem with smart TVs is that they do collect vast amounts of data about the shows you are watching and the streaming apps you are using. This technology is called Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) and as its name implies, it identifies and shares information about the shows, videos, series, DVDs and even YouTube videos you are watching, and sends them to third parties. TV and streaming companies say that this information is used to provide you with a better experience and content recommendations, but the reality is that once these companies understand your likes and dislikes, they can pinpoint and target advertising to you and your family.

How do you turn these features off? The bad news is that you can’t completely; unless you disconnect your TV from the internet. Each brand has its own way for you to opt-out of the data collection based on their privacy settings. Since there are so many brands, my recommendation is to do a simple search for “turn off data collection for (Brand, Model) TV” and you should get a simple guide on how to do it. This article also lists a few of the brands and steps to turn it off.

Can Smart TVs Spy on You? What are the other potential risks?

Since the smart TV is basically a computer, it can also be hacked. Although the risk is not as prevalent since most people have some type of protection in their house in the form of an internet router with some firewall functionality, it’s not to be discounted. Previously reported vulnerabilities in some of these TV OS platforms have been patched but if you know anything about the history of security and computing devices, new ones will be found.

The FBI recently warned about hackers potentially taking control of your insecure TV, changing channels and even showing inappropriate videos on the screen. Potentially, it could be used as a jump-off point to try to get into your computer and even turning on the microphone to spy on you.  How real are these threats? If the FBI is warning about them, they are as real as they get.

Smart Speakers

Smart Speakers listening for their wake word

They all have cute and seemingly innocent names such as Alexa, Siri, and Google but their purpose is to listen to their wake word. In the case of the Amazon Echo that word is “Alexa”, for Siri it’s “Hey Siri” and for Google it’s “Hey Google”. Those words can be changed but you get the idea.

Once the wake word is heard, then the device awaits your command or question. What’s the problem with all this? It’s been reported that smart speakers can mistake conversation or even background noise for their wake word and start listening.

There have been reported cases of these speakers recording random conversations and even sending them to third parties. It’s bound to happen but it’s rare. The reason these reports make the news is because they are not a frequent occurrence. With tens of millions of these units in homes across the world, if this would happen more often, there would be way more news about it.

The real potential issue are the human reviewers. Human reviewers? Yes, all artificial intelligence systems need to be trained and some of this training needs to be done by humans. This means that some of your recordings could end up being heard by the techs that are working to improve these smart speakers.

What can you do?

Review your history and see what’s been recorded. Where and how? If you find something you don’t like, you can delete it.

If you have any fears of the speakers listening in when they are not supposed to, you can always use their mute button, so the microphone is deactivated. It takes away from the convenience but it sure adds to peace of mind.

Are Smart Phones Spying on Us?

smartphone with voice assistant listening

There are many anecdotes of our phones spying on us and listening in to what we are saying. Some of them are true and some not but there are very real concerns. The truth? They are but not necessarily how you might think.

The common thought is that phones are listening to us speak and then later targeting ads based on conversations, but evidence suggests that’s not the case. The reality is that our behavior, our searches online and even our physical location show more about our interests than we can imagine.

The advanced and secret algorithms for these companies harvest that information and create advertising profiles of us and people like us that can be targeted and retargeted. What does that mean?

When you visit a site about a product and that product shows up in your searches and follows you around, it’s called retargeting. The website places a “cookie” in your browser, which is basically an identifier that says, hey, I was looking at this Nike shoe on this website.

These sites are part of gigantic ad exchanges that trade on that information so when you visit another site and you have that cookie in your browser, the site knows to show you ads from the provider you were browsing.

Why do companies do it? Simple, because it works.

Other ways that your phones spy on you is through third-party apps, these apps can go as far as recording your screen to see how you are using them. Although the Android marketplace and the Apple app store do a decent job of filtering bad actors, from time to time, you see news of malicious apps collecting your data and using it for nefarious purposes.

How do you protect yourself against this? You really can’t but you can mitigate this by not installing apps from suspicious third parties and doing a little bit of due diligence by visiting the app’s website and reviews before installing it. Not many people do this.

Smart Cameras

Display of security cameras in a tablet

We’ve seen the terrifying videos of smart cameras being hacked and the privacy of the people that own them being compromised. This is very scary. Inviting bad actors to your home from who knows where. Some of these devices seem to be violating the very premise of their existence – which is making us feel safer.

If you’ve been on the internet long enough, your personal information is likely to have been hacked one way or the other. This doesn’t speak about your data security policies or about your level of care. The reality is that way too many third parties have been compromised and your data has been compromised along with it. What does this have to do with the cameras? Very simple.

Hackers use the available databases of usernames and passwords and try them on popular security sites such as camera providers. Eventually, they find a match so they login to your account remotely. Simple.

Since these devices bypass your firewall to be able to send video and audio back to the app or the provider’s website, a hacker sitting anywhere in the world could be watching the camera stream from your home.

How do you know if your information has been hacked and made public? It’s not 100% but if you enter your e-mail on this website, it will tell you if it’s been a part of one of the major reported hacks. I say reported because there are many hacks that go unreported, I can venture to say that this is the case for the majority. Yes, it’s a wild, wild west on the internet.

A simple way to protect yourself is to download a chrome extension called password checkup extension by Google. How does it work? Whenever you enter a username and password combination on a website, Google checks against its database of data breaches and it notifies you with a big red warning box that the username and password combination you are about to use is not safe.

Red prompt to change your password
The Google Password Checkup Extension will warn you if your password has been previously compromised.

In conclusion, your information is being used not necessarily against you, but it’s being used to target you, retarget you, sell to you and package your preferences and interests and sell those to third parties. Every device does it in their own way, but they all do it. Welcome to 1984, I mean 2020.

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