EPIC Battles Samsung Over Smart TVs

Privacy Group Files FTC Complaint on Voice-Command Recordings

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

Samsung has a privacy notice, posted on its website, that informs TV buyers the sets can record voice commands and share them externally.

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

Samsung said 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 said that means, in terms of how the feature is implemented, after the voice recognition feature is activated, everything the user says in front of the TV is recorded and transmitted over the Internet "regardless of whether it is a voice command or not."

The Samsung Voice Recognition policy, EPIC noted, 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 SmartTVs, while Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a ranking 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.”

In 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.”