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Smart Devices Pit Privacy Against Convenience

Published on Feb 25, 2015 at 2:43 pm in Tech Trends, Tennessean Articles.

by James Fields

TV monitorIt seems that your smart TV may be listening to a lot more than what “Downton Abbey” episode you want it to play.

At least that’s what the privacy policy for Samsung’s internet connected SmartTV suggests. Buried in the dense policy is a single line that implies serious privacy infringements: “Please be aware 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.”

Simply put, anything you say around your SmartTV when the voice activation feature is in use could be recorded and shared with Samsung or third parties.

Unsurprisingly, the discovery has caused a stir as people learned that their TV could be “spying” on them. But actually, this is far from an anomaly. Instead, the policy is further evidence supporting the notion that if your smart gadget connects to the internet, it is almost assuredly collecting data on you.

And therein lies the rub. Smart machines, those that listen to and learn from users, are disrupting the market and growing in demand. Cognitive computer systems, like those found in self-driving cars, drones and robots, connect to the Internet of Things, analyze user data from internal and/or external sources and then react appropriately.

You’re not alone if you think these systems sound like a sci-fi special. But, what feels like an episode of “The Jetsons” now will be the norm tomorrow. In fact, information and technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. predicts that 4.9 billion connected things will be in use in 2015, which is a 30 percent increase from 2014. And by 2020 they estimate that number will reach 25 billion.

This new technology will undoubtedly make everyday tasks easier and more convenient. But at some point, consumers will have to stop and ask: What is the cost of this convenience? The very functions that make our gadgets and appliances “smart” are also what allow them to be informational gold mines.

This is at the heart of the Samsung SmartTV debate. It’s clear that collected voice commands are important for providing customized content and improving performance. However, this constitutionally protected information should by no means be purchasable for advertisers or accessible to law enforcement without a warrant.

Luckily, there are ways to ensure privacy without swearing off smart machines. Or at least when it comes to watching television. For smart TVs, the voice recognition feature, which allows the user to control the TV via voice commands, can be deactivated. This would prevent any collection of private data. Additionally, you can disconnect the TV from the Wi-Fi network, which prevents the device from recording information.

There are safeguards and work-arounds when it comes to protecting your information, and these will likely increase as we embrace and adapt to “smart” systems. However, every time you submit any kind of data to digital technology, there is the possibility that it will be recorded and/or stored. And as we produce more and more data, there will be more and more variations of that data available.

Moving forward into this brave new world of disruptive technology, consumers will have to be diligent when it comes to protecting their privacy, as the avenues for data mining increase. At the very least, you’ll probably want to read through user agreements and privacy policies before clicking the “I Accept” button.

This post also appeared in The Tennessean, where Concept Technology has a bi-weekly feature in the Business section.