Not-So-Smart TV

Tom Butts

ALEXANDRIA, VA.— It turns out that the latest crop of “smart TVs” may not so smart after all, at least not smart enough to protect their purchasers.

If you’ve bought a laptop, smartphone, or a certain tablet or smart TV in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed a small camera installed above the screens. How many times these are actually used depends upon your affinity for services like Skype, but it seems that hackers have also found a use for them: To spy on you.

This disturbing news was revealed earlier this month when an Internet security research firm demonstrated at a hacker’s convention how easy it was to break into a 2012 Samsung Smart TV to control the television’s camera, Web browser and other functions, possibly enabling such hackers to spy on their users.

iSEC Partners, the research firm that demonstrated the hacking, originally discovered the problem late last year and notified Samsung, which said it responded by updating the software. That wasn’t enough, obviously, as demonstrated by the hackers. In light of this latest revelation, the company said that it “takes all concerns regarding consumer privacy and information security very seriously,” and that it had released a further software update to “resolve this issue.”

And if customers are not reassured that the software update is enough, Samsung also recommended that users turn the camera into the bezel of the TV when not in use, unplug the TV from the home network when not using the smart TV features, and as an added precaution, using encrypted wireless access points when using connected devices.

But the one solution they didn’t mention that is probably the most fool-proof: Cover the camera lens with a piece of duct tape—an analog solution to a digital problem.

Although the consumer electronics manufacturers would like to think the issue has been resolved, it wasn’t enough for New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who fired off a letter to Samsung, LG, Sony and other TV makers that sell smart TVs to wise up.

Duct tape: an analog solution to a digital problem. “I was disturbed to read recent reports of hackers exploiting new features in television sets in order to break into home entertainment systems of users and spy on unsuspecting channel surfers,” Schumer wrote. “For a TV to secretly function as a spycam would violate a fundamental expectation of privacy in the American home. Televisions now have Wi-Fi, cameras, and other features similar to those of a computer.” Schumer continued. He concluded his letter by urging the companies to adopt a “uniform set of safety and security standards” to prevent future hacking.

This incident is just the latest in a long line of privacy issues created by ever smarter consumer electronics; the smart TV hacking problem was raised a year and a half ago but it seems that the hackers continue to be one step ahead of the manufacturers.

In a period of justifiable angst over privacy issues, the smart TV problem is probably low on the priority list and for most consumers, fairly easily fixed. And it will most likely pale compared to the next anticipated mass camera surveillance dilemma: Google Glass.

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.