Tech That Spies On You

Category: Gadgets

Your phone, your television, your child's toys, and other gadgets in your home may be listening to your every word -- ready to serve, inform or entertain you. But what happens to those words once they've been digested by those devices? Let's take a look at voice-activated technology, and their privacy implications. Read on…

"Please Say a Command…"

Genesis Toys, which makes robotic toys that verbally interact with children, and its subcontractor, Nuance Communications, are in trouble with privacy advocates. According to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the two companies violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 by recording what kids say to two interactive toys without adequate disclosure and consent of their parents, and engage in practices deemed unfair and deceptive, e. g., playing “hide the opt-out button.”

The toys are “My Friend Cayla” and the I-Que Intelligent Robot. They’re basically the same device with different outer shells. Both use voice recognition tech to listen to what children say to them. They connect via Bluetooth to an app on a smartphone (presumably owned by a parent) and from there, via the Internet, to a crude form of artificial intelligence that answers kids’ questions. The AI tech is hosted on Nuance’s servers.

Does the name Nuance sound familiar? You might recognize them as the same company that sells the popular Dragon dictation software. So they know a thing or two about speech-to-text translation.

voice privacy

Of course, children say all kinds of things to their toys, including personal info that parents may not want to be recorded and stored by Nuance. The complaint alleges that Genesis and Nuance do not adequately inform parents that their children’s words will be recorded and stored; do not give parents an obvious opportunity to opt out; and do not encrypt children’s communications in transit or on Nuance’s servers.

This controversy is just the latest in a long series of concerns that arise every time new interactive tech comes to the market. Whether Genesis and Nuance are in violation of COPPA remains to be seen. But this case raises the question, “What other things are spying on their owners?”

What Else is Listening?

Smart TVs get smarter by getting to know their viewers. Necessarily, that involves tracking what shows are watched at what times, and storing that info somewhere. That may be OK, but what about selling data about your viewing habits to advertisers so they can target you with exactly what you’re most likely to buy, or selling it to data brokers who add your TV viewing habits to the ever-growing dossier they keep on you? VIZIO has been caught doing that, and it’s safe to assume that other smart TV makers do likewise.

Certain Samsung smart TVs are voice-controlled. According to the company’s privacy notice, the products "capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features." OK, that’s reasonable. But then the policy goes on:

"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 through your use of Voice Recognition."

So arguments with your spouse, a teenager’s tearful pregnancy announcement, or an overheard phone call with a business associate may end up in the hands of an unknown “third party?” Yes, but Samsung assures us that the third party only looks for voice commands and ignores the rest.

But then we learn that Samsung doesn’t bother to encrypt the data it collects. If it’s intercepted, an unauthorized third party may learn much more than we want it to learn. That’s a problem.

What does Nuance do with the recordings it receives from dolls and TVs? The company’s terms of service, which are easily missed during setup of the devices, claim the right to use all of the data it receives to fine-tune its service and develop new features. That seems to imply that the private utterances of children and adults are being stored indefinitely.

Some smart TVs have cameras built into the bezels of their displays, like the Webcam built into a laptop computer. The cameras are provided for users who like to Skype on the big screen. But the camera can be activated remotely, to undetectably video-record everything within its range. Way back in 2013, security researchers demonstrated how easily a hacker could exploit this capability on a high-end Samsung smart TV. Samsung soon issued a software update that closed this hole.

Always Listening...

In 2015, rumors flew that Google’s Chrome browser was surreptitiously recording the voices of users and transmitting that data to Google. In fact, the “OK, Google” voice-command feature was being activated only by one open-source Linux variation (Debian), and not by Google. Google eventually pulled the “OK, Google” feature out of Chrome and Chromium (its browser-based operating system) and made it an optional Chrome extension.

Today, exactly the same eavesdropping rumors that have plagued smart TVs, dolls, and browsers are flying about Amazon Echo, Google Home and other voice-controlled digital assistants. Is that black cylinder recording everything that it hears and storing the data in Amazon’s immense storage cloud?

Amazon explains that Echo is always listening, but only for the “wake word” that signals the beginning of a voice command. (The wake word is “Alexa” by default.) All of the voice-recognition processing necessary to identify the wake word is done locally, without sending any data to Amazon. Only when the wake word is recognized does Echo begin streaming data to Amazon for processing of the command that follows it. Data transmission stops when the command has been processed. You can press the mute button on the top of the Echo to turn off the microphone, if desired.

Google offers a Voice and Audio Activity page, where you can control what is saved, see the voice commands you've sent, delete your voice history, or turn the feature off. I wasn't able to find a similar option for those who use Siri on the iPhone.

Most privacy concerns arise because users have little understanding of how new-fangled devices and software work, and little reason to trust the makers of their tech gizmos. If companies did a better job of explaining their new tech at the time it is released, they would spend a lot less effort refuting FTC complaints and rumors that may persist for years.

Consumers should assume that anything they say within "earshot" of a voice-enabled device might be sent somewhere, stored for some period of time, and possibly analyzed by a third party for advertising or other purposes. Users also need to be aware that for every new gadget that accepts voice commands, they should be looking for the privacy policy, and the opt-out option.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Do you have any voice-enabled gadgets? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Tech That Spies On You"

Posted by:

Anthony Birnbaum
16 Dec 2016

There is a simple solution to all of this: "Don't buy any of this crap either for yourself or your kids!" I love my "dumb phone", "dumb TV", etc. for this very reason.

Posted by:

16 Dec 2016

Reminds me of the old "Party Line" system of landline phones. OOPS! I'm dating myself, although many may not know what a party line was.

Posted by:

16 Dec 2016

Easy I don't have or want any thing that is smart
knew this years ago is getting hard to find without

Posted by:

16 Dec 2016

reply to MikieB yes know I do remember party lines

Posted by:

16 Dec 2016

OhNo! you mean my Windoz phones with Cortana are data mining everything? Am I not to trust Microsotz?
Yes I remember party lines on land phones. Like having to wait my turn to make a call. Remember that?

Posted by:

Joe Farkas
16 Dec 2016

It is simply amazing how the advertisers and marketeers think how gullible is the public! Basically you can't buy a TV anymore w/o a built in camera and mike. I tried to setup a new TV from a big name maker and it would not get-out of the "nagging loop" to connect it to the Internet! Finally bypassed that and are using an independent streaming device w/o camera or mike.

As I have stated here and elsewhere before, if the Stasi, the Securitatea and the similar former such organizations would have had this technology, they would have been in business forever!

Posted by:

16 Dec 2016

G'day Bob
I only have the Google mike on laptop and mobile phone, rarely used.Have a good rest of the day.

Posted by:

16 Dec 2016

Smart TV's were way less expensive than "dumb" TV's when we made our purchase.

We just never entered the wi-fi password on the TV set up, so it cannot connect to the internet ..... OR is there something I don't realize may happen?

I'll check back to see if Bob, or anyone else has commented as I value the info I get from this website.

Posted by:

Walt vdH
16 Dec 2016

In East Germany during the DDR Communist Regime, they had a saying, I'll try to translate. It concerned making jokes critical of the State, and were then arrested by the Stasi (Secret Police)

There are people who collect jokes.
Then, there are people who collect jokes and then tell those jokes.
And then, there are people, who collect the people who tell those jokes.

I see nothing to prevent the NSA from gathering this information under its, "Collect it ALL" proudly stated policy. Then, it can be used to make a person into, "An Enemy of the State" as the movie title says.

The present surveillance possibilities make the Gestapo and Big Brother look like 4th rate wannabe's. And remember, if you want to have a private conversation, close your cell phone in the microwave.

Posted by:

16 Dec 2016

Big Brother is Watching... and Listening

Posted by:

16 Dec 2016

Another point is that in this day of hacking all the Internet of Things you won't know who is listening. It might be be more that the company that manufactured it.

Posted by:

Robert A.
16 Dec 2016

You just gotta know that some perv working at, or associated with someone working at Nuance will start secretly recording and cataloging snippets of crude, vulgar, racist and otherwise obscene conversations and diatribes picked up by these toys, and then release the recordings to some hackers who will hack and reprogram the toys to drop scatological "f-bomb" laced utterances at random moments, while on store shelves or under the Christmas tree, resulting in a huge public outcry, and the manufacturer having to recall and destroy all these toys.

The sad part is that it's likely some kids these days have worse vocabularies than the toys may develop.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2016

It's getting harder and harder to opt-out of these things. A cable company is advertising a remote you can talk to as a main reason to choose them over satellite. Even if you don't use the talking feature of this remote it still could record you just like a smart phone. Not only should people be concerned about the company that holds this information, a hacker could easily use such features to record or view you with these built-in mic's and cameras. A burglar with tech skills could use these smart devices to listen to see if anyone is home and to get a look at what there is to steal in a house. The NSA can also collect this information and it is actually illegal for a company to reveal that they have received a security letter from the NSA to collect information stored on users.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2016

Yes MikkieB, I remember party lines. When my folks moved the family from Chicago to the Ozarks in the late '50's, our phone # was 46j5 and we only answered when in rang 4 times.

Posted by:

18 Dec 2016

You can opt out or turn it off if you want. Ha Ha Ha.

This tech, if it is included with your device, can be turned off or on remotely. It can, if capable, transmit data over the power lines or Transmit to the local thief sitting in his car in your neighborhood or anyone else with basic tech knowledge and a want to do no good. Or those who would sacrifice one for the good of many.

But I'm not doing anything wrong you say. Maybe not but even the right you do is no persons or entities damn business but your own.

Posted by:

Bob Stromberg
19 Dec 2016

I know of no way to verify that any "mute" button or preference is actually working to turn off a microphone. For instance, on my "old-ish" laptop.

I can put a piece of tape over the webcam. But the mike? How do you effectively muffle the mike?

Posted by:

20 Dec 2016

I love my electronic gadgets, but I've not grown so lazy that I can't pick up my smart phone, which is protected by a VPN, to conduct an internet search. Our flat screen TV is "dumb", and if I ever buy a "smart" TV, a piece of black tape will cover the camera and microphone. Streaming is done by an external device.

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