Last week, Samsung warned its Smart TV users that the television records users background conversations.  The voice recognition technology, used to change channels or recommend movies for example, records voices in the TV’s vicinity and transmits them to a third party.  Is this a privacy issue?

That third party company translates the speech to text, necessary for the voice activation programming to work. The TV does not discriminate between commands and conversations, meaning that private conversations of its’ users may inadvertently be recorded and transmitted.

This could be particularly worrisome for people who have discussed deeply personal matters such as their sex life or finances in front of the TV.

Samsung states that the third party does not retain its data or sell it to advertisers.  Ryerson University digital media professor, Jaigris Hodson, isn’t so sure.  She told the CBC, “The default from these tech companies is they will share your information unless you opt out.”

The same operation and process applies to other voice activated commands, such as those used with Siri (iPhone), XBox Kinect, Amazon Echo speakers, Microsoft Cortana, and Google Now voice assistants.

In some cases, the user must enable the voice activation program.  In others, the voice activation program is the factory setting. Therefore, users who do not want their conversations recorded would have to disable the program to ensure their privacy.

Sharing of personal information is a sensitive matter when it comes to technology.   In 2011, activity tracker Fitbit users discovered that some of their comments and entries about their sexual activity was broadcasted and easily searchable through Google.

Toronto privacy lawyer Kirsten Thompson noted, “They knew they were recording it.  They just didn’t make the connection that it was going to also be shared online because that was just the default setting. (CBC February 16, 2015).

The CBC article showed google entries for fitbit users that stated, for example, “Sexual Activity. General, moderate effort”, and “Sexual Activity.  Active, vigourous effort.”

The popularity of new technology appears to be outpacing the Canadian governments’ ability to update privacy legislation.  The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) governs how private sector organizations collect, use, and disclose personal information in the course of business.

The PIPEDA became law in 2000.  Further information on PIPEDA can be obtained by visiting the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.  Their website also offers helpful fact sheets for adults, parents, and kids, on topics such as:

  • 10 Workplace Tips for Protecting Personal Information On Mobile Devices.
  • Introduction to Cloud computing.
  • 12 Quick Privacy Tips for Parents.
  • Protecting Your Privacy On Line.
  • Identity Theft and You.
  • The Risks Of Megadata.

Consumers can protect themselves by checking the status of the voice activation options on their smart devices, and by disabling those that cause them concern.

Jayne Embree, M.A.

Jayne holds a Masters in Psychology and is a highly experienced Divorce Coach and Child Specialist. Currently on sabbatical, Jayne is conducting research in the area of family dynamics and parental conflict.

 Areas of Practice: Family law including separation, divorce, mediation, arbitration, child & spousal support, support variations, guardianship, parenting time, access, property division and more. Victoria BC