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What you need to know for 05/28/2017

Panicked about WikiLeaks smart-TV disclosure? Here's what you should know

Panicked about WikiLeaks smart-TV disclosure? Here's what you should know

Before panic sets in, let's take step back
Panicked about WikiLeaks smart-TV disclosure? Here's what you should know
A Samsung HU7250 4K TV.
Photographer: Handout via The New York Times

Samsung on Wednesday said that it is looking into reports based on WikiLeaks documents that the Central Intelligence Agency may have developed a way to access Samsung SmartTVs to control some features of the device and to record conversations within range of the television.

According to the documents, which have not been confirmed by the CIA, the agency was able to use a "Fake Off" mode to make the television appear inactive and record conversations. Only Samsung smart TVs from 2012 and 2013 that run the older 1111, 1112 and 1116 versions of the company's firmware are affected, the documents said.

"Protecting consumers' privacy and the security of our devices is a top priority at Samsung," the company said. "We are aware of the report in question and are urgently looking into the matter."

Before the panic sets in, though, let's take a step back.

First, The Washington Post has not been able to independently verify what's described in the WikiLeaks information dump, and the CIA has declined to comment.

Second, the WikiLeaks document describes the hacking of individual, targeted devices. Judging by the information posted on WikiLeaks, the CIA needed to plug a USB drive into a television to get the hack to work. While some say it's likely that the CIA was also developing the ability to get into televisions remotely, as Forbes reported, there isn't proof that they've succeeded.

"For the vast majority of us, this does not apply to us at all," said Jan Dawson, an industry analyst at Jackdaw Research. 'There's no need to worry for any normal law-abiding citizen, based on what I've seen."

But if you still have concerns, there are some steps to take if you want to turn off the voice recording capabilities on your Samsung television. You can head to your settings menu, then select "Smart Features." From there, you can choose "Voice Recognition" and turn it off.

The WikiLeaks report adds to concerns that recently have been raised about smart televisions and spying. The report focuses on government surveillance, but the electronics companies themselves have been accused of using their televisions to invade customers' privacy. Last month the Federal Trade Commission settled with television maker Vizio, which was accused of collecting and sharing its customers' data without permission. Samsung in 2015 drew criticism when its privacy policy included a warning telling people not to have private conversations too near their smart televisions in their own living rooms.

Given consumer preferences, it's going to get more difficult to find a television that isn't smart. According to a report from the Consumer Technology Association, 28.7 million smart TVs are expected to sold in the United States in 2017, out of 40 million units of total digital displays expected to sell. That means roughly 72 percent of TVs sold in 2017 will be smart in some way, though the report doesn't break down how many of those might have audio and video recording capabilities.

Of course, the news that its televisions could be used as surveillance tools, isn't great for Samsung. The company has already taken several public hits in the past few months, due to recalls of its Note7 smartphone and some washing machines, as well as bribery charges being leveled at one of its top executives in South Korea.

"In isolation, this would come and go without problems, but now it's another reason for Samsung to be in the headlines," said Dawson. Taken together, he said, it fits into a greater negative narrative about Samsung, which sells at least one-third of the world's smart televisions.

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