A Dystopian Future Of Ads That Won't Stop Until You Say 'McDonald's' Could Be Avoided With More Transparency

from the and-control dept

I’ve discussed in the past how many people mistake privacy as some sort of absolute “thing” rather than a spectrum of trade-offs. Leaving your home to go to the store involves giving up a small amount of privacy, but it’s a trade-off most people feel is worth it (not so much for some uber-celebrities, and then they choose other options). Sharing information with a website is often seen as a reasonable trade-off for the services/information that website provides. The real problem is often just that the true trade-offs aren’t clear. What you’re giving up and what you’re getting back aren’t always done transparently, and that’s where people feel their privacy is being violated. When they make the decision consciously and the trade-off seems worth it, almost no one feels that their privacy is violated. Yet, when they don’t fully understand, or when the deal they made is unilaterally changed, that’s when the privacy is violated, because the deal someone thought they were striking is not what actually happened.

And, unfortunately, it often seems like people are increasingly being pressured into deals they don’t fully understand and don’t have full control over. Michael Price, over at the Brennan Center for Justice, took the time to actually read through the “privacy policy” on his new “smart” TV and it’s terrified him. Just the fact that a TV even has a privacy policy seems oddly terrifying, but it makes sense, given that at least some information goes outbound as part of the “smarts.” But how much? Potentially a lot more than people would expect:

The amount of data this thing collects is staggering. It logs where, when, how, and for how long you use the TV. It sets tracking cookies and beacons designed to detect ?when you have viewed particular content or a particular email message.? It records ?the apps you use, the websites you visit, and how you interact with content.? It ignores ?do-not-track? requests as a considered matter of policy.

To some extent, that’s not really all that different than a regular computer. But, then it begins to get creepier:

It also has a built-in camera ? with facial recognition. The purpose is to provide ?gesture control? for the TV and enable you to log in to a personalized account using your face. On the upside, the images are saved on the TV instead of uploaded to a corporate server. On the downside, the Internet connection makes the whole TV vulnerable to hackers who have demonstrated the ability to take complete control of the machine.

More troubling is the microphone. The TV boasts a ?voice recognition? feature that allows viewers to control the screen with voice commands. But the service comes with a rather ominous warning: ?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.? Got that? Don?t say personal or sensitive stuff in front of the TV.

You may not be watching, but the telescreen is listening.

Now, yes, some of that certainly can be useful in creating interesting features and services. And, frankly, almost all of the same things can be said about the smartphone in your pocket with Siri or Google Now listening in to anything you say at any moment’s notice. But at the very least, with those smartphone systems people tend to see and understand the immediate benefits: they use those tools to get information and they’re fairly easy to turn off without creating other problems. With the TV, it seems to be more of the promise of potentially providing some future service — but it’s still willing and ready to listen in the meantime.

This is certainly not to argue that the technology is bad, but that these sorts of things shouldn’t be hidden in a 46-page privacy policy that no one is going to read. People should be fully aware of what the deal is, and they should have control over how it’s used, with some granular controls: maybe let people set the times in which the TV’s “ears” are on — so that maybe it only works during prime time when you’re likely to use the TV. Or let people have access to the logs and data that it’s snarfing up so they can view for themselves how it’s being used. Make sure that the people using it have both transparency and control, and suddenly this becomes somewhat less scary (well, until the NSA goes to the FISA court to use Section 215 to get all the “metadata” from all your smart TVs.)

And, of course, just as I was finishing up with that article, I came across a report of a patent from Sony from a few years ago. It actually got some attention back in 2012 for describing a system in which your TV may ask you to say the advertiser’s name to end a commercial. This figure in the patent is the one that quite reasonably got plenty of attention.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that some companies are considering something like this. In fact, some of the underlying ideas aren’t totally crazy. We’ve long argued that good advertising is about making it good content, and making ads that are interactive and fun is one way to do that. Of course, I don’t quite see how the above scenario is very much fun. To me, it sounds horrifying, but others may disagree.

Either way, it’s become quite clear that while the world is becoming more connected — between our computers, our phones, our TVs and much more, people are increasingly going to run into challenges around privacy. And, while some are going to jump to the conclusion that any information gathering and sharing is automatically bad and dangerous (or just crazy), it’s going to be important to recognize the trade-offs inherent in these new devices and services. If companies don’t want the public to totally freak out, they’d do well to make these processes much more transparent, clear and controllable by the users themselves. Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet. The focus is still on hiding these things out of a fear that no one would use them if they knew what they were giving up. That seems like a recipe doomed to create privacy panics, rather than one that actually enables innovation to advance and which lets the public be comfortable with the choices they’re making.

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Comments on “A Dystopian Future Of Ads That Won't Stop Until You Say 'McDonald's' Could Be Avoided With More Transparency”

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Anonymous Coward says:

So, if you happen to be having sex and you have the TV turned on, and some pervert at the manufacturer decides to monitor your viewing habits and monitors the videocam or you’re changing your child’s diaper and some pedophile hacks your TV and records your child in the nude …

WOW! Could TV manufacturers could actually be held liable?

Anonymous Coward says:

My big question is how long with manufactures provide security updates for the smart TV’s they’re selling. If these TV’s use BASH shell and are vulnerable to Shellshock exploits, will manufactures keep patching these exploits for 10-20 years into the future. Or will they conclude that providing security updates for a 10 year old TV doesn’t make enough dollars, and therefore doesn’t make any cents.

I predict they’ll choose the latter option and stop providing security updates. At which point hackers will start hacking into them and using the built-in camera and microphone to remote view people watching TV in their underwear. Or perhaps they’ll use the smart TV to launch attacks inside the owners LAN network.

The possibilities are endless.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I predict they’ll choose the latter option and stop providing security updates.

I disagree, for the same reason you would pause if I asked when you stopped beating your wife. You don’t do it now (I hope), so how could you stop? By the same token, I find it depressingly rare to see any embedded device get even one security update, much less get it in a timely manner or have ongoing support.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It is likely that updates will be offered for a total time of 0 years, 0 months, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes and 0 seconds. The MPAA attitude to end use devices, via HDMI rules, also ensure that the firmware will no be upgradeable by the user either, it will require at least on binary blob.

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’ve actually been somewhat pleasantly surprised at the number of software updates my LG Blu-Ray player has received. It only cost $59 and has received at least 6 updates.

The latest happened after the Netflix (instant queue only) app stopped working. I didn’t really care as my new 28″ $275 TV has Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. built in. But sure enough, after about 2 months of it not working, it got an update and started working again. This Blu-Ray player is about 5 years old and still getting updates.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: That figure

I’m envisioning it as part of an XKCD:

SmartTV: “Say McDonald’s to end the commercial.”

Human: “McDontald’s!”

SmartTV: “I heard you say ‘Dukes of Hazard.’ Would you like to watch that now?”

Human: “No, I want to continue watching ‘Survivor: CSI’!”

SmartTV: “OK, Videoconferencing your brother in Hawaii.”

That One Guy (profile) says:

You missed something

People should be fully aware of what the deal is, and they should have control over how it’s used, with some granular controls: maybe let people set the times in which the TV’s “ears” are on — so that maybe it only works during prime time when you’re likely to use the TV. Or let people have access to the logs and data that it’s snarfing up so they can view for themselves how it’s being used.

You seem to have forgotten this part from what was quoted:

It records “the apps you use, the websites you visit, and how you interact with content.” It ignores “do-not-track” requests as a considered matter of policy.

If I’m reading that right, those using the tv do have some control over what is and is not tracked… the software just ignores any choice that isn’t ‘Yes, please track everything I do’.

Having the choice doesn’t mean squat if it’s a meaningless one, and one that will be ignored.

That One Guy (profile) says:

A PR gem just waiting

For companies that still manufacture ‘regular’ tv’s, they could easily capitalize on stories like this. Just show and explain what these ‘smart’ tv’s are capable of and doing, and end the commercial with the phrase: ‘If you value your privacy, you’d have to be pretty dumb to want a Smart tv.’

Anonymous Coward says:

For the example of saying McDonalds to end the ad, I’d say this is an example of repeating something often enough and it becomes acceptable whether it is or not. Let me make plain I do not consider McDonalds a restaurant. It’s a hamburger joint that doesn’t serve good meals. I do not and won’t go there.

A smart tv that needs a privacy policy? Please, this tv or one like it I will never buy. Should I have one it will never see the internet, at least not by choice. I haven’t heard anything about the possibility that live through the electric power might be a considered idea for those like me who hate spying. Were this to happen you would not need an internet account, the company making the tv would set that up for themselves with their products logging in to report.

I have this same problem with gaming consoles that think this a great idea. It’s my money and I don’t have to spend it, especially on products I don’t like or what’s supported I don’t want. I’m game on a disconnected computer that doesn’t call home thank you. Since it doesn’t have a microphone nor a camera, they aren’t going to be turned on without my knowledge.

kitsune361 (profile) says:


This. This is why I insisted to the S.O. that the last TV we bought not be a “Smart TV”. It has to be “just smart enough”, with an old school RS232 serial port for external 2-way control. I can roll out my own “smarts” for the TV with an actual AV control system or a computer with something like MythTV.

Fortunately, if you are willing to spend the extra cash most TV manufacturers produce “commercial grade” TV screens for digital signage that are still quite dumb but with serial control… but even these are getting pretty rare.

Samsung’s and LG’s are still “Smart” just a different kind of “Smart”.

Eldakka (profile) says:

This is why I’m trying to buy a non-smart TV.

Why do I need a smart TV when I’ve got a media player that can play shows from my NAS? And a computer for when I want to access other online content? If I really want to view whats on my computer on the TV, I can hook up the computer to the TV.

I don’t want a TV that’s a computer, I want a TV to display content, and that content is either from the internal FTA tuner or from a video input.

Anonymous Coward says:

memory hole

Let’s not forget that “smart” televisions by design also spy on people in ways that have nothing to do with the services they’re providing. Last year Techdirt revealed that LG TVs were logging and uploading to their central server the file names of everything stored on a user’s USB flash drive.


How can anyone seriously write about the issue of ‘smart’ TV and privacy concerns without even mentioning that jaw-dropper? Techdirt is seriously short-changing itself by not linking to these previous stories that need to remain in the public eye.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Making the Smart TV Dumb Again

And in return they make it so that the tv has to be connected, if not constantly then at least every so often, or it doesn’t work.

Remember, Microsoft almost did that very thing with the XBone, so clearly companies do consider it as an acceptable way to screw over their customers, if they think they can get away with it. There was enough backlash over that idea as it related to a game-console, but do you think there would be similar outrage, in sufficient quantity, over a tv?

John85851 (profile) says:

What if you have an accent

Although the patent illustration shows the man successfully saying Then code word to end the commercial, what happens when the TV doesn’t recognize it? What if your wife or husband has an accent and the TV can’t tell what the word is? If you know anyone with an accent who has trouble with Siri, picture them trying to use this feature on the TV.
I can easily see marketing companies setting their commercials to say “Say you love this commercial for it to end.” Then they go back to the company and report that 99% of the people who watched the commercial said they loved it. Of course, they had to say that to end the commercial and keep watching their show, but why quibble over the details?

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