Your smart TV could be spying on you?

LG전자, ‘CES 2014 혁신상’ 15개 수상

How ironic that there is an article suggesting we should stop trying to make the TV smart.

From friends on Facebook, it seems clear LG smart TVs are spying on their owners.

I found a rather creepy corporate video advertising their data collection practices to potential advertisers. It’s quite long but a sample of their claims are as follows:

LG Smart Ad analyses users favourite programs, online behaviour, search keywords and other information to offer relevant ads to target audiences. For example, LG Smart Ad can feature sharp suits to men, or alluring cosmetics and fragrances to women.
Furthermore, LG Smart Ad offers useful and various advertising performance reports. That live broadcasting ads cannot. To accurately identify actual advertising effectiveness.

In fact, there is an option in the system settings called “Collection of watching info:” which is set ON by default.  This setting requires the user to scroll down to see it and, unlike most other settings, contains no “balloon help” to describe what it does.

At this point, I decided to do some traffic analysis to see what was being sent.  It turns out that viewing information appears to be being sent regardless of whether this option is set to On or Off.

I kind of thought this kind of thing was going to happen. Although LG’s response is frankly shameful. Having a always on LAN connection is just too tempting for these big companies. With my Toshiba smart TV, I had to read a long EULA before I could use the TV, I had a read of most of it and there was some parts about relaying information back to Toshiba. The TV channel viewing I don’t really care too much about because 90% of the time I’m watching XBMC not live TV. What is worrying however is sending the details of a USB or mass storage device’s details.

I made an even more disturbing find within the packet data dumps.  I noticed filenames were being posted to LG’s servers and that these filenames were ones stored on my external USB hard drive.  To demonstrate this, I created a mock avi file and copied it to a USB stick.

This is out of order and got to be an invasion of privacy…

With that in mind, would you trust them with cameras and microphones?

Good pointer for a couple of projects I’m working on including Perceptive Media and the mentioned here and there iot Signals project. Back to the wired piece

Bottomline: The TV ecosystem is waiting to be created. But consumer electronics companies won’t be the ones to create it.

This will take more than hardware expertise. It will require a service that controls the consumer device. Most importantly, it will require mutually beneficial relationships and data exchange between the service provider and content providers to enable a new business model for video distribution.

I certainly agree with the first part… consumer electronics don’t get it, and this LG spying story proves this.

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.

34 thoughts on “Your smart TV could be spying on you?

  1. I’ve worked in the consumer electronics business for quite some time so let me present some information for your consideration, I don’t expect you to like it but it will explain context: 1) Adverts: These are often used to subsidise features and capabilities. Sometimes good EPG data needs to be paid for, sometimes you need to justify the running of applications stores. This is a business choice that the manufacturer has to make, be off-putting or lose money. Targeted advertising does increase acceptance of advertising over non-targeted advertising, however if you hate advertising your just not going to get a subsidised product (if it is economically feasible to make one). 2) Viewer tracking: This has many uses a) product improvement: by knowing how users use products you can improve your designs. However this isn’t usually done in such a scatter gun approach. b) You can sell anonymous information to agencies who use it to understand viewing habits and increase the value of traditional TV advertising. 3) Third party content tracking – This could be used a) to identify working and non-working content formats, not all encoders are the same and it is a nightmare debugging all the strange formats the people of the internet generate. b) to deliver improved titling, indexing and other metadata.
    Above all remember Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”: 1) LG’s response from their CS department was composed by a minimum wage agent who got a response from their mid-level supervisor who enquired with someone in product management who badly translated that from some Korean discussions. 2) Most Koreans don’t care about content piracy, it is rife in Korea, especially with their excellent bandwidth. 3) Most of these policies were probably written by someone more interested in making the best product for the least money and probably not someone from the west.
    I would hope that LG might pick up on this and make a better statement, but it won’t change their attitude.
    Finally, personally as someone who makes a lot of set-top boxes I would happily see more dumb TVs, but the business of TVs is loss making. None of the big brands has made money in the TV business in ages, most people do it either for turn-over or brand recognition. Making basic large “monitors” is a difficult business to make a profit in because you are selling something very basic in a mature market.

    1. Thanks Bobdvb…
      Point 1. Adverts, yes agreed. I don’t like it but its just one of those things I’ve put up with now. I tend to use my TV as a screen rather than TV, so most of the _features_ are lost on me, along with the adverts.
      Point 2. Viewer tracking… I think the biggest problem is yes I usually allow devices to feedback to the manufacturer but its usually done in a non-personal way. They also don’t tend to try and trick you by offering options to not do this and still do it. Finally its in an encrypted method.
      Point 3. Agreed and ultimately this will help the ecosystem but to do this in a underhanded way seems insane.

      I don’t think LG’s response was from on high, I got a feeling after this gets kicked about a bit they may change their tune. As the wired piece says, the set top box is a chance to do something which may make some money. But this has got to be done with the content/media providers. Of course I would suggest Perceptive Media as a good idea for how this could be great for the future.

      Cheers for the comment

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