Ann Cavoukian: Samsung SmartTV ‘snooping’ shows privacy laws need update

Ryerson’s privacy chief says she’s “disturbed” by television sets that can listen to their owner’s conversations.

According to Ann Cavoukian, executive director of Ryerson’s Privacy and Big Data Institute and Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, Canada’s private sector privacy laws need to be revised to reign in the capabilities of smart devices.

Earlier this month, the Daily Beast discovered one sentence in Samsung’s SmartTV privacy policy that sparked concerns among consumers.

“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,” the device’s policy reads.

Ann Cavoukian was Ontario's former information and privacy commissioner. (Courtesy Laurelrusswurm / WIkimedia Commons)

Ann Cavoukian was Ontario’s former information and privacy commissioner. (Courtesy Laurelrusswurm / Wikimedia Commons)

SmartTV’s voice command feature allows users to operate their TV without a remote control. But its default setting also collects personal information without consent. Users need to manually opt out of the setting to ensure what they say aloud is not sent and stays in the living room.

“When I heard of it I was so disturbed … This is considered a form of spying or snooping,” said Cavoukian.

Buyers are not told of the policy at the time of purchase and Samsung doesn’t ask for consent.

“You should make privacy the default setting so no one has to ask for it,” Cavoukian said. “You are given privacy assurance without asking for it.”

Some Twitter users compared Samsung’s privacy policy to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.

“In a way, it exceeds Orwell’s expectations. It’s not the government (breaching privacy), it’s the companies,” she said.

Canada’s private sector privacy law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), requires organizations to identify the reasons for collecting personal information before or at the time of collection. It also requires businesses to get informed consent and limit the amount and type of the information gathered to what is necessary for the identified purposes.

PIPEDA was introduced in the early 2000s and Cavoukian said it’s in need of an update.

“We can’t assume the businesses can take any information (they want),” Cavoukian said. “We have to stand up and say enough.”

Valerie Lawton, a senior communications advisor at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said in an email to The Ryersonian, that the office hasn’t examined the SmartTV issue.  But she added that: “The privacy issues that could potentially arise would depend on the technical design of the (device), and associated policies and practices governing the collection and use of personal information.”

Lawton said her office is currently looking into the privacy issues that can arise from smart devices and they expect to publish a series of research papers later this year.

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