FBI Warns Consumers About Smart TV Security Risks

The Oregon branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation posted a press release warning of the potential dangers of smart TVs in the lead up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales events. The press release explains that because smart TVs are connected to the internet, they have certain security and privacy risks not associated with regular televisions. These devices often include microphones and cameras. These risks come from both malicious third-party hackers and the manufacturers of the products themselves. They warn that hackers who would not normally be able to access your computer directly may be able to use these televisions as weaker points of entry. The press release says, “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 warns that the worst-case scenario involves the hacker accessing the camera device on the television and silently stalking you.

Additionally, the manufacturer could be using the device to gain access to personal information and using the microphone and camera to observe users. Tech companies have used similar information in the past to improve their products and to make money. A scandal occurred in April when it was discovered that Amazon employees were listening to pieces of conversations heard by the Echo speakers that run the Alexa digital assistant. Amazon claimed the only purpose of listening was so the speech recognition technology could be improved upon and that employees listening to the recordings had no personal information about the owners of the devices, including their names. Facebook, amongst other companies, sells access to the information about the things you say and like to advertisers so they can target you personally, a business model that makes them billions of dollars a year. The FBI advises that while many of the devices include a way to opt out of any personal data collection, consumers should research the privacy options of the TV models before buying them.

The FBI provided a list of things that owners of smart TVs can do to improve their security. This includes changing any passwords on the television; knowing how to turn off the personal data collection features, as well as the camera and microphone; making sure the manufacturer has the ability to update the devices security software; and researching the privacy policy of the TV’s manufacturer so you can know what data they collect, what they use it for, and who they share it with.

The FBI is not the only one warning about the risks of Smart TVs. Matt Tait, cybersecurity expert and former British Government Communications Headquarters analyst, emphasized the importance of keeping up to date with the manufacturer’s software updates, saying “Generally, customers who keep their devices up to date won’t have too much to worry about,” adding that for those who are particularly worried “there is a simple solution to keep hackers out: unplug the device from your network.”

Consumer Reports has been looking into these devices since last year. They state that some of the FBI’s information is out of date and that many of the manufacturers have been working to fix these security issues since the 2018 Consumer Report. The updated report states that cameras have been largely eliminated from newer TVs, sighting as evidence the fact that “Consumer Reports’ labs haven’t seen one in any of the hundreds of new TVs we’ve tested in the past two years.” Consumer Reports looked at several smart TV brands including LG, Sony, Samsung, Vizio, and TCL. While Consumer Reports says that companies, like Samsung, have fixed security problems that Consumer Reports identified last year, other vulnerabilities remain. They cited a study conducted by researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London which states televisions are known to share information with other tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and especially Netflix.