Big Brother: HDTV Easily Hacked And Spying On Viewers

(Gary Merson)  Samsung’s 2012 top-of-the-line plasmas and LED HDTVs offer new features never before available within a television including a built-in, internally wired HD camera, twin microphones, face tracking and speech recognition. While these features give you unprecedented control over an HDTV, the devices themselves, more similar than ever to a personal computer, may allow hackers or even Samsung to see and hear you and your family, and collect extremely personal data.

While Web cameras and Internet connectivity are not new to HDTVs, their complete integration is, and it’s the always connected camera and microphones, combined with the option of third-party apps (not to mention Samsung’s own software) gives us cause for concern regarding the privacy of TV buyers and their friends and families.

Samsung has not released a privacy policy clarifying what data it is collecting and sharing with regard to the new TV sets. And while there is no current evidence of any particular security hole or untoward behavior by Samsung’s app partners, Samsung has only stated that it “assumes no responsibility, and shall not be liable” in the event that a product or service is not “appropriate.”

Samsung demoed these features to the press earlier this month. The camera and microphones are built into the top if the screen bezel in the 2012 8000-series plasmas and are permanently attached to the top of the 7500- and 8000ES-series LED TVs. A Samsung representative showed how, once set up and connected to the Internet, these models will automatically talk to the Samsung cloud and enable viewers to use new and exciting apps.

These Samsung TVs locate and make note of registered viewers via sophisticated face recognition software. This means if you tell the TV whose faces belong to which users in your family, it personalizes the experience to each recognized family member. If you have friends over, it could log these faces as well.

In addition, the TV listens and responds to specific voice commands. To use the feature, the microphone is active. What concerns us is the integration of both an active camera and microphone. A Samsung representative tells us you can deactivate the voice feature; however this is done via software, not a hard switch like the one you use to turn a room light on or off.

And unlike other TVs, which have cameras and microphones as add-on accessories connected by a single, easily removable USB cable, you can’t just unplug these sensors.

During our demo, unless the face recognition learning feature was activated, there was no indication as to whether the camera (such as a red light) and audio mics are on. And as far as the microphone is concerned the is no way to physically disconnect it or be assured it is not picking up your voice when you don’t intend it to do so.

Samsung does provide the ability to manually reposition the TV’s camera away from viewers. The LED TV models allow you to manually point it upward, facing the ceiling; the plasma’s camera can be re-aimed to capture objects in the rear of the TV according a Samsung spokesperson.

Privacy concerns
We began to wonder exactly what data Samsung collects from its new “eyes and ears” and how it and other companies intend use it, which raises the following questions:

  • Can Samsung or Samsung-authorized companies watch you watching your Samsung TV?
  • Do the televisions send a user ID or the TV’s serial number to the Samsung cloud whenever it has an Internet connection?
  • Does Samsung cross reference a user ID or facial scan to your warranty registration information, such as name, address etc.?
  • Can a person or company listen to you, at will, via the microphone and Internet connection?
  • Does Samsung’s cloud store all this information? How secure is this extremely personal data?
  • Can a hacker intercept this data or view you via the built in camera?
  • Can a third-party app program do any of the above?
  • Exactly what information does the TV send to Samsung or other parties?
  • Does Samsung intend to sell data collected by its Smart TV owners, such as who, what and when one is viewing?

Companies desiring to provide highly targeted advertisements to you via the TV screen or external marketing would find this data extremely valuable. “Hey, you look a little tired, how about some Ambien? I’m seeing a little grey, have you tried Grecian Formula?  Joe, it looks like you packed on a few pounds recently, here’s information from Weight Watchers. Hey kids, you look bored, look at these TOYS!”

So what, if any, privacy does Samsung promise by way of a stated policy?

Weeks have passed since we formally requested answers to these questions from Samsung asking what if any privacy assurances Samsung provides. To date no privacy statement has been furnished to HD Guru or end users. The first models with these features arrived on dealer’s shelves over two weeks ago. All that we’ve been told is that when connecting to the Internet, the TVs first connect to the Samsung cloud, and from there, they connect to the various streaming video services and other apps for activation.

Samsung induces its new Smart TV owners to register online by offering a free three-month extension of the TV’s warranty. This would couple user names and addresses to their TV serial numbers, if the company so desired.

Want to read the owner’s manual for your new Samsung TV? This is accomplished by download, as Samsung stopped including printed owner’s manuals at least two years ago. However, before you may download the manual, you must first agree to the following online statement:

Samsung assumes no responsibility, and shall not be liable, in connection with whether any such products or services will be appropriate, functional or supported for the Samsung products or services available in your country.

We asked Samsung to define “appropriate” but to date have not received a response. We will update readers with a response or a privacy statement if and when Samsung chooses to provide one.

Security threats
Don’t assume a TV is an un-hackable island! Samsung does not disclose what operating system is within its TVs, therefore we cannot confirm if it is Android and/or any other that might have a prior history of hacking.

It has been widely reported Android phones have been hacked allowing outside control of phones, via third party apps.

Countless companies have had their networks hacked, causing thousands of customers’ personal data to be released to the world. If this were to happen to Samsung it is theoretically possible hackers could gain access to names, addresses — and images of the faces of entire families.

The TV has a built-in Facebook app. Can the TV make the next connection and access your Facebook account and match other viewers to their Facebook pictures for even more personal data?

A Samsung representative said the company is working on apps that will allow its Smart TV owners to turn their televisions into a silent home-security system by allowing remote viewing on a smartphone or tablet via the TV’s built-in camera. This ability makes us ask, “Who else could gain access this video feed?”

There are  security systems that go over the Internet, however, many are encrypted. Is any Samsung’s data encrypted? The company doesn’t say. Generally security companies let customers know when their data is encrypted, as it is a selling point.

In addition, the Samsung HDTVs come with an external infrared blaster that allows users to control a cable or satellite box via voice, gesture or the Samsung remote. We ask: does the TV send this information over to Samsung’s cloud as well? Does Samsung now know what other equipment you have, when you’re home to use it, what channel you’re viewing and when?

The models with this unprecedented feature set are the 2012 8000 series plasmas PN51E8000, PN60E8000, PN64E8000 and LED models UN46ES7500, UN50ES7500, UN55ES7500, UN46ES8000, UN55ES8000, UN60ES8000 and UN65ES8000. Many of these models are now at dealers with the rest scheduled to ship within the next few weeks.

With so many questions raised and no answers provided, HD Guru recommends you weigh the possibilities and decide whether or not you care about its unknown personal privacy risks before purchasing one of these HDTVs.

  • Anonymous

    As long as the consumers know about these features who cares? It’s only when they are required by the government that they become a problem.

    • Pete

      But that is the point. Unless you know about this,which the salesmen don’t tell the consumer, it’s NOT ok. I don’t like the idea of my life potentially being exposed to SO many people without my consent. The idea of knowing about something but not given a choice accept NOT buying the product is really no choice at all
      And if the government were to require all information collected by the manufacturer about the consumer, how would you feel then? Or if the manufacturer gave this info willingly to the government.
      Imagine you are having a party at home with your TV in the room. Someone turns it on then some simple law is broken such as someone lights up a joint in your house without you awareness of it. Later can and will that evidence be used against you? Afterall it is in your house at your party= your responsibility.

      Maybe your thinking that I am over thinking this problem, somebody HAS to.

      • Read the owner’s manual.

        • Gus

          Read the owners manual!? Ha! If I come visit your home you’ll never tell me that I’m on camera and you’ll never warn me that your couch is now a “public place.” That is the same as illegal wiretap and video. It’s not the same as a private monitoring system because it goes (1.) to the cloud, and (2.) through a third party, and (3.) can never be removed from the records even with a court order because the cloud crosses international boundaries and jurisdictions.

          A covert TV camera in the home is no different than jail, except that in jail people know they are being watched.

          Allowing this or making excuses for this is evil. The same argument was used by Nazis and is still used by Communists and Dictators and Tyrants today. Shame on you for supporting tyranny.

    • Mike

      just put tape over it

  • CJ

    Anyone who knowingly places a TV equipped with a camera and microphones in their house deserves whatever happens next.

    “….these models will automatically talk to the Samsung cloud and enable viewers to use new and exciting apps.”

    More like create new apps – ones where you and your wife/family are the ‘stars’. Smile real big now. Might want to keep your clothes on, too.

    • Cassius

      There is no “cloud”. What actually exists are Corporate Servers.

      ‘CJ’ is absolutely correct. If you are stupid enough to buy into
      this crap, you have volunteered to be scrutinized and recorded,
      owned and operated, bought and sold and you deserve your future.

  • Heartset

    What’s to say televisions weren’t also transceivers all along? How else did those rating services get all their information? Remember all those years governments did experiments on unsuspecting people…

    • Cassius

      Nielsen issued log books for some to record their viewing habits,
      and behavior. What’s to day your are not an uninformed Poser?

  • IF moronic people are STUPID enough to watch Pentagon TV, then they deserve to be hacked, ESPECIALLY if they were dumb enough to fall for and buy a new HDTV.

    You reap what you sew!

  • blues

    Let me be your big brother! Why not? I will keep an eye on you all the time! You see, there are now two distinct classes: a ruling patrician observer class, and a common subordinate observee class. I belong to the former, and you probably belong to the latter. You should accept your position with grace, and avoid making futile complaints. Thank you.

  • Franz


  • nygrump


  • First, let me say that if a technology exists that lets .gov-tards invade your privacy, they WILL USE IT. That’s the type of people they are. And they will retroactively give themselves the power to do so, because they pay the judges who decide that sort of thing.

    For the moment, it’s a pretty straightforward thing to counter: a couple of pieces of sticky-tape (over the camera), plus a decent firewall or router setup (preventing outward traffic from the IP assigned to the TV) and Bob’s your uncle.

    Then, the parasite-political class will write law permitting them to access your camera to perform FISA-authorised surveillance in the event that they receive ‘credible evidence’ that you’re a terrorist (or involved in terror-related activity, like reading the internet).

    Eventually someone will have the TV ‘phone home’ with code-chunks of anything viewed through the wifi, AppleTV, WDTV or USB – for checking against a database of copyrighted material. It will happen in the name of ‘piracy prevention’ and/or ‘paedophile detection’, and it will be the ‘foot in the door’ for the ViewScreen from 1984.

    Then it will be an offense to disable or impede the functioning of the camera on any camera-capable device, and to disable or impede the internet connectivity of any internet-capable device.

    This is about a gradual increase in the ability of the parasitic megalomaniac sociopaths in the political class to control their livestock.

    And it won’t end until we do what Diderot said was required (“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest” – update by substituting “politician” and “police sniper” as appropriate).

  • warbaby

    I for one believe this has been going on for far longer than we suspect. I always put covers over my television and computer after I turn them off.

  • Winston Smith

    What are the model numbers of these teevees? A family member bought one last July so it is probably not a model 1984.

    • george

      nice :) you beat me to an Orwell reference. Time to pull the book off the shelf and give it a re-read.

      • Button

        “1984” was required reading when I was in school. I read it back in 1970. We had class discussions and were all of the opinion this could never really happen. We were young and stupid.

  • Winston Smith

    Whoops sorry I see the numbers at the end of article. Thanks

  • Anonymous

    As soon as I saw the kinect I knew the year was 1984.

  • Marvin

    The optics and the audio have to have a physical connection, and are easily identified. It doesn’t take much to pull the housing from the chassis, cut the physical wiring to the visual/audio, and install your own simple on/off switch to defeat this. If in doubt or don’t have the ability, you should be able to get it done at a tv repair shop. It will probably void the warranty, but in the scheme of things the warranty isn’t that great any way. Start looking for work arounds on this.