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Eyes On You
By Andy Sim - on 09 May 2012, 3:25pm

Smart TVs are getting smarter. And we've already witnessed firsthand how these Connected TVs have evolved into something more than just a simple display panel with Internet facilities. Take Samsung for instance, and their newly announced ES series, engineered with fancy benefits like motion control, voice triggers, and face recognition. In simple terms, you may use basic hand gestures to control the TV's channels or volume, or capture your beautiful mugshot and use the photo as a login biometric on social media sites as compared to say, a more traditional ID and password combination.

We won't go so far to say that the ES8000 is an emphatic game changer, but we can't deny that Samsung has brought new modes of interactivity to the domain of Smart TVs with its voice triggers, motion controls, and face recognition features.

However, in order for these Smart TVs to detect your hand movements, voice, or facial features, Samsung has little choice but to incorporate a built-in camera and a microphone into their televisions' hardware to satisfy these interactive needs. This got us thinking. Are we compromising our privacy if we were to install such a Smart TV model right in the heart of our living rooms? Or worse, our bedrooms? And if so, just how much and how often is that insidious camera snapping away unnoticed? Can we disable the camera and microphone when they're not in use? With these doubts in mind, we posed a couple of related questions to Samsung, and here's what they have to say.

Image credit - Samsung

1. Samsung's latest slew of premium Smart TVs are equipped with built-in cameras and microphones. Is it possible for Samsung or third-party developers to 'see' or 'hear' what users are doing via the camera and microphone?

Samsung does not store or collect facial images or voice data through the built-in camera and microphone featured on Samsung's 2012 range of Smart TVs. Facial image data is securely stored on the TV, and is not stored on any of Samsung servers. As for voice recognition, voice data received by the microphone is matched with command words stored on the TV to activate features. When using the voice search feature, voice data recorded by the microphone is transmitted to the service provider’s servers and does not pass through Samsung servers. As the query words are not linked to users' account information, it is impossible to identify the user who made the search query. In the case of video calls, data is protected by industry-standard encryption and cannot be accessed by third parties.

2. How can users ensure the integrated camera isn't 'watching' them when the device is not in use? And can the camera and microphone be disabled if need be?

Yes, users are able to disable the camera and microphone on their Smart TV. Users can also find out if the camera and microphone is switched on from the setting menu. When a consumer purchases a Samsung Smart TV, the Smart Interaction features including voice, motion and facial recognition are turned off by default. These features are only enabled when the user chooses to change the setting to "on". In the case of the camera, the user may also adjust the angle to face (upwards or toward the wall) if they wish to.

3. Can Samsung guarantee that personal data, such as facial images and passwords linked to social media accounts, are not exploited by Samsung or any third-party applications?

In the case of apps provided by Samsung, users enter an ID and password during registration, and such data is stored on Samsung servers. Passwords are encrypted with a hash function when stored on Samsung servers, and thus cannot be read by Samsung or third parties. In the case of third-party apps, log-in information such as user IDs and passwords are stored solely on the user’s TVs.

4. Fair enough, but how does Samsung process or handle these bits of sensitive information stored on their servers?

Personal data is stored on secure Samsung servers solely for the purpose of providing customized services and account registration. Information is only used for the purposes stated in Samsung's privacy policy and terms and conditions consented to by the user.

5. How does Samsung's privacy policies tie in with their Smart TV services? Can users opt out?

Users who do not accept Samsung's privacy policy and terms and conditions can choose not to make use of Samsung's Smart services. In the case of an application requiring the use of personal data that falls outside Samsung's privacy policy and terms and conditions, the user will be prompted to review the request and asked to consent to the additional terms of the privacy policy in advance.

In summary: 

Essentially, what Samsung is saying is that voice, facial images, and 'third-party data' are stored locally on the TV itself, while IDs and passwords for Samsung's applications are stored and encrypted remotely on Samsung's servers. Any additional usage of personal data as demanded by third-party applications has to be approved by the user, although how explicitly the details are being fleshed out during the request remains to be seen, that is, till we've read the terms and conditions for ourselves.

In addition, the integrated camera and microphone are disabled by default, and they can be enabled via the TV's systems menu when needed. Although Samsung did mention that the camera may be tilted to face the wall or the ceiling, the South Korean firm did not explicitly assure users that the camera wouldn't take surreptitious snapshots on its own. To be safe, we figure it's wiser to turn the camera away than to take a calculated risk. Of course, you can always power the TV off (via the mains) as a cautionary measure.

Andy Sim

Andy Sim / Former Senior Tech Writer

Andy is a self-made geek with a penchant for good music and a hearty pint. His domain includes swanky TVs, notebooks and networking gizmos.