Smart devices: Is privacy loss inevitable?

Traffic jam in wing mirror
Image caption Smart apps that track driving involve surrendering some privacy for material gain, say experts

People who use smart devices that monitor what they do will have to get used to giving up some privacy, warns a top technologist.

Prof Will Stewart of the Institution of Engineering and Technology said privacy loss was "intrinsic" to such gadgets.

His comments come after Samsung warned about a voice activation feature on some of its televisions.

It warned people to avoid talking about personal issues in front of their TV in case it grabbed sensitive information.

Lost features

Widespread publicity about the privacy policy for some Samsung Smart TV sets has led the South Korean firm to clarify when such sets listen to what people say.

Rather than listening all the time, the voice activation feature works only when people press a button on a remote control and speak into a microphone, it said.

At these times, anything said will be recorded and sent across the net for analysis to work out what that person said. It added that it did not retain any audio or sell it on.

The publicity prompted a wider discussion about other ways in which smart TVs intrude on privacy or limit the control that people have over how they use them.

It brought to light an older report about unwanted adverts appearing on smart TV sets and reports by owners of smart TVs who said they lost access to some features if they did not consent to a manufacturer's privacy policy.

Image copyright Microsoft
Image caption An advert featuring actor Aaron Paul saying "Xbox on" was switching on consoles

In addition in late 2013, LG faced criticism over the way its smart sets gathered information about viewing habits.

Some owners of game consoles have also questioned how often their devices are "listening" as many are programmed to respond to voice commands. In mid-2014, a TV advert featuring actor Aaron Paul saying "Xbox on" was found to be switching on consoles in some homes.

Prof Stewart said there seemed to be "little danger" in the Samsung case but added that this may become less true as TV sets and other devices got smarter.

"Upcoming services, like live translation, do involve wider data sharing and people should be aware of this," he said.

In many cases, it was going to be impossible to avoid surrendering private information, Prof Stewart said. "Many more ordinary services like locate-your-friends and car tracking to reduce insurance costs do involve some intrinsic loss of privacy," he said.

While most people realised this and were happy to lose a little privacy in return for a material benefit, far fewer realised that the privacy loss was "progressive" and would lead to steadily greater intrusions, he said.

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