Don’t worry about Samsung’s Smart TVs listening in… worry about all of our gadgets listening instead.

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Over the last few days everyone has been losing their minds over the revelation that Samsung’s smart TV privacy policy lets the company retain and transmit your voice data when you use voice commands.

samsung-smarttv

For some reason, this has become a really big story, despite voice technology like this being nearly ubiquitous nowadays. When you ask Siri or Google Now a question, your voice isn’t translated on your phone – it is sent off to the cloud for processing, and your question is then parsed by remote servers as it they try to figure out what it is you want to know. If you have an Xbox Kinect, or a Sony Playstation Camera, then these are internet-connected devices that are capable of broadcasting pictures and audio from your living room.

In many cases with these, as with other internet applications, this process involves passing your data to third party applications. In the Samsung TV case, it is thought that the “third party” is probably the company with the voice recognition technology, but it is the same in other applications – such as apps which integrate with Facebook and Twitter.

What I can’t quite work out is why everyone is losing their minds, particularly over Samsung specifically. However, this isn’t to say privacy doesn’t matter – quite the opposite. In fact, it is perhaps something we should all endeavour to be more conscious of.

In any discussion of privacy – especially ones which involve audio and video – it is de rigueur and pretty trite to reference the Telescreens of George Orwell’s 1984. But as it turns out, he was mostly right. The only thing that Orwell got wrong is that it wouldn’t need a totalitarian state to enforce surveillance, but that we’d willingly trade our privacy if it means more convenience for us.

If, ten years ago, someone offered you £1000 if you promised to let them track you 24/7 – including your location, your conversations and what content you consume. Though a grand would be nice, you’d have surely said “No!” – as your privacy is more important than that.

Now though, this is exactly what modern gadgets do – and we’re not only reconciled with that, but we happily pay big money for the privilege. That’s a pretty radical transformation in our perception of privacy – but convenience can change the calculation.

One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century is going to be people understand exactly what they are sharing and what the implications are – and we should pay more attention, lest it be misused. Perhaps one of the biggest unexplored areas is what sharing our data does to the companies that control it. Every time we tap a search query into Google, watch a YouTube video, or ask Google a question using Google Now, Google is learning more about us – tuning its algorithms to give us even better results. The same is true for Apple when we download an app, or Facebook when we post a message.

The big companies are in essentially a data arms race: Who can gather the most information about individuals, to build the most complete picture of who we are as individuals. In this environment, how are new competitors supposed to emerge? How can a new search engine ever supplant Google, when Google knows best? And how can we trust these companies to always handle our data responsibly? Who will hold these companies to account?

James O’Malley