FBI warning: protect yourself from your new smart TV

Published Dec. 4, 2019 10:29 p.m. ET
Updated Dec. 5, 2019 12:26 p.m. ET

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TORONTO -- Excited about that great smart TV deal you scored over the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend? Not so fast. 

The FBI is reminding the public to be aware of the features that come with enhanced televisions and guard against questionable data collection, monitoring, and security breaches.

More and more televisions and many other devices and appliances are now equipped with microphones and/or cameras, capturing enormous amounts of information about the minutiae in people’s lives in exchange for the convenience afforded by these devices. Forgot to turn off the heat at home before your vacation? You can do it from your phone. Someone stole a package from your front porch while you were out? You can see who it was from the doorbell camera and even talk through the device.

"We’re just now starting to appreciate that these devices first of all, capture a lot more - and a lot more information from the environment - than the device makers originally told us," said York University assistant professor Natasha Tusikov, noting that information is often stored for much longer and shared with more third parties than people realize.

Amazon’s Ring doorbell, for example, has come under public scrutiny over how it collects and shares data. The Intercept reported last week that the company had plans to use facial recognition software to create AI-enabled neighborhood watch lists. Amazon’s Ring division had already partnered with more than 400 police departments across the United States as part of what it says is a mission to make neighbourhoods safer, according to the Washington Post. And on Tuesday, CNET.com reported that police also had access to maps that showed the streets where doorbells were installed.

These devices are leaky. They aren’t properly protected,” said Tusikov, whose teaching focuses on the intersection between law, crime, technology, and regulation.

Smart devices have garnered a great deal of attention over the last several years, with the discussion surrounding privacy and how much information companies gather a controversial and ongoing debate. 

Surveys show that while a majority of respondents have privacy concerns and distrust how the data collected by smart home devices is shared, it does not deter them from owning and using these devices.

Like Alexa, Google, or Siri, smart TVs equipped with microphones listen for commands such as what program a viewer wants to watch, while those equipped with a video camera might allow facial recognition in order to automatically personalize the viewing.

“For something that collects and parses information for how we consume cultural content, it reveals a lot about us - about our politics, our religion, our sexuality,” Tusikov said. For some people, this can be very sensitive information. Faulty inferences could also be made about a person and that information might be sold to marketers, she added.

BACKDOOR ACCESS FROM YOUR TV

In addition to the possibility that companies may be listening, watching, and gathering sensitive information, smart devices such as a television can also make your internet vulnerable, the FBI said.

“A bad cyber actor may not be able to access your locked-down computer directly, but it is possible that your unsecured TV can give him or her an easy way in the backdoor through your router,” the FBI said.

At best, hackers can be annoying - say, taking over the channel control and maxing the volume on your television. But they could also show children inappropriate videos or cyber stalk someone through the smart TV in the bedroom.

Another serious and growing problem is how smart technology can facilitate domestic abuse, said Tusikov.

An abusive partner can set up a device so only they have access to the account, allowing them to monitor and control the household through their phone even when they are not present or without the other person’s knowledge. They can control the temperature, access and control other devices, turn the lights on and off. A smart keyless entry door lock can grant or deny someone access to a home remotely, while a smart doorbell can track who comes and goes, or how long they stay.

“This is really serious. This is something the police and the legal system are slowly learning about,” Tusikov said, adding that smart device access is increasingly being included in “do not contact” orders, for example, requiring accounts and passwords to be handed over.

As smart TVs and other devices become ubiquitous, finding basic devices that do not connect to the internet will become increasingly difficult. So how can you better protect yourself and your family? This is what the experts recommend:

  • Familiarize yourself with your television or other device and learn how to control its features. Research the model along with key search terms such as“privacy,” “microphone,” and “camera.” Some TV models have a retractable feature that allows you to “hide” the camera if you are not using it.
  • Check the default settings and learn how to turn off the “smart” features and data collecting.
  • You can buy a small device camera cover, allowing you to hide or unhide the camera as needed. Covering the camera with black tape is also a simple and effective solution.
  • Check if the manufacturer offer software updates, including security patches.
  • Set up passwords if possible.
  • Read the privacy and terms of service for the device and any related services to find out what kind of data they collect, how and where it is stored, how the data will be used, and who has access to the data. Be aware that information might be stored in a different country from where your device is located.

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