FBI Says Smart TV's Can Be Cyber Unsafe - Here's How to Stay Safe

Are you buying a Smart TV this holiday season?

Actually, the question could simply be, “Are You Buying a TV?” Without a lot of us noticing, essentially all the current models are smart. One tech site says a buyer has to go back to 2013 or 2014 models to find TVs that do not connect to the web. The argument is that consumers now want streaming services, so connectivity is necessary. You have probably noticed that the FBI has issued a warning about the risks of smart TVs.

There are two basic types of risks that confront the owner of a smart TV—hacking and data collection and tracking. New buyers certainly need to recognize the risks and take necessary actions. Households that already own one or more smart TVs should be careful to ensure that they have followed all the recommendations. It’s never too late to upgrade your device security, especially if you simply checked “OK, I agree” instead of reading the privacy policy when the TV was installed.

Hacking. Any device that is connected to the internet can be hacked. Smart TVs have microphones and cameras that can also be hacked. There are instances in which TVs have been seized and inappropriate content has been aired. By taking over cameras and microphones the hackers can listen into conversations and view activities in the room. Hacking a smart TV may also provide an opening into other devices on the network like a personal computer. 

The standard advice for all new connected devices applies here also plus some that are specific to TVs. See the FBI recommendations below. One possibility not included there is scanning your smart TV for viruses. Samsung has had so many problems that they have added McAfee antivirus under their Smart Security feature. For other brands, check the instructions that came with the TV or call its customer service. If you are still in the market for a TV, this is a feature to consider.

Data Collection and Transfer. A smart TV is capable of collecting vast amounts of data, especially if the microphone and camera have been left on. Much of that data is sold to other businesses that use it for purposes ranging from content development to ad targeting. The good news is that there is so much data and it is so valuable that the prices of TVs are lower than they otherwise would be. Of course, it adds to the ways in which our personal data is used without our knowledge or permission in ways that are often intrusive and sometimes dangerous.

Smart TVs collect viewing data using a technique called Automatic Content Recognition. Use of the technique requires that the raw data be sent to a third-party services firm to be converted into text. Various TV manufacturers have said that the services firms do not retain the data, simply returning it to the TV. There it is available to recommend other viewing options to the viewer and to be sold to advertisers for targeting purposes. Voice data is collected through the voice remote. There are even some gaming apps that are able to pick up the audio signals, not voice content, in TV ads and possibly also from movies and other electronic devices. Certainly this data is being sold, but little is known about its uses at present. To be safe never allow an app to connect to the microphone on your smart phone.

Turning off ACR can be one step in TV set-up, but you have to read the privacy settings. Turning the software off is different on each TV, so if yours was set up some time ago, here is a guide from Consumer Reports that covers most of the major brands.

Here are the recommendations from the FBI in their own words:

  • Know exactly what features your TV has and how to control those features. Do a basic Internet search with your model number and the words “microphone,” “camera,” and “privacy.”

If the Consumer Reports guide does not cover your brand, this is the route you need to take.

  • Don’t depend on the default security settings. Change passwords if you can – and know how to turn off the microphones, cameras, and collection of personal information if possible. If you can’t turn them off, consider whether you are willing to take the risk of buying that model or using that service.
  • If you can’t turn off a camera but want to, a simple piece of black tape over the camera eye is a back-to-basics option.

Silly as it sounds, this is a time-honored solution. There is an iconic picture of Mark Zuckerberg sitting at his desk that clearly shows the black tape over his monitor’s camera.

  • Check the manufacturer’s ability to update your device with security patches. Can they do this? Have they done it in the past?
  • Check the privacy policy for the TV manufacturer and the streaming services you use. Confirm what data they collect, how they store that data, and what they do with it.

In the end, there is only one way to prevent a smart TV from collecting and transmitting data. Do not connect it to the internet, and you avoid the problems discussed here. You will also be unable to access streaming services through the TV. The alternative is to use a media player like Roku or one of its many competitors.

Even if there seem to be no alternatives to smart TVs today, there are ways to make using them safer. It’s another situation in which the proverbial ounce of prevention is well worth the effort.

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