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Smart TVs Could Be Spying On You And Security Risks Are Real: FBI

There are ways to protect your privacy so you don't become a victim.

So you bought a new TV on Black Friday. Congratulations, we know it wasn’t an easy decision. From 4K to Ultra HD, it can be hard to know exactly what you’re getting these days.

But what if we told you the device you spent hundreds of dollars or even thousands of dollars on could be spying on you? And the worst part is that it could happen in the comfort of your own home.

In fact, the matter is so pressing, a U.S. government law enforcement agency wants you to know all about it before you become a victim.

The FBI is warning people that TV manufacturers and application developers could be watching or listening to you through smart devices. Your bright and shiny new purchase with the latest bells and whistles has so much technology that it could be used against you.

Smart TVs connect to the internet, which makes it easy to watch content only available there. They’ve grown in popularity over the last decade as major brands such as Samsung, Sony, LG and others began selling them.

The majority of TVs sold today are smart TVs. In 2017, 69 per cent of all new TVs shipped in North America had internet capabilities, Consumer Reports noted, citing research firm IHS Markit. There are millions of them in homes all over the world, and many more are expected to come.

In a world where more and more people are cutting the cable cord and relying on streaming giants like Netflix and YouTube, smart TVs have become a modern necessity for those who want to keep using their screens.

Some newer models feature built-in microphones to allow users to control what they’re watching with their voice. Others have cameras that utilize facial recognition technology to recognize users and suggest content.

It’s all meant to improve the TV watching experience by making it so easy that even your grandma can figure it out. But with all that power comes great responsibility.

A man watches television on a smart TV in this undated stock photo. The FBI says it's important to know your TV's capabilities before buying one.
iStockphoto/Getty Images
A man watches television on a smart TV in this undated stock photo. The FBI says it's important to know your TV's capabilities before buying one.

The FBI says it’s not only the manufacturers you have to watch out for, but also those who are lurking in the dark. Hackers may be listening or watching you if they’re able to gain access to your home, especially if you aren’t proactive in defending yourself.

“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 wrote in a news release.

“Hackers can also take control of your unsecured TV. At the low end of the risk spectrum, they can change channels, play with the volume, and show your kids inappropriate videos. In a worst-case scenario, they can turn on your bedroom TV’s camera and microphone and silently cyberstalk you.”

The FBI’s Portland office warned smart TV users to build themselves a digital defence by doing the following:

  • Know your TV inside and out by researching its features. Search for the specific model number online by including key words such as “microphone,” “camera” and “privacy.”
  • Change your settings to reset passwords and turn off the collection of personal information through microphones and cameras. Don’t just rely on the default security settings.
  • If there’s no way to turn off the camera, a simple solution is putting a piece of black tape in front of the camera lens. This is a common “back-to-basics option” often used for laptops.
  • Research the manufacturer to see if they have the ability to update your device with security patches. If they’ve done it before, they can likely do it again.
  • Read the privacy policies from the TV manufacturer and the apps you use to stream content to ensure the terms are right for you.

If you think not owning a TV is the answer to your privacy concerns, think again. It’s not just TVs that are vulnerable to hacking. Any electronic device in your home that has access to the internet could be targeted by bad actors. That’s why it’s important to know everything your technology is capable of before you buy.

This isn’t the first time the FBI has warned people about technology. In 2016, former FBI director James Comey admitted he puts a piece of tape over the camera lens on his laptop.

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