Civil Liberties

Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned: Your Smart TV is Spying On You

It appears the CIA is exploiting Americans' TVs to collect information, and it’s a safe bet they’re not the only ones.

You Were Warned: Your Smart TV is Spying On You

A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency logo in the lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Aug. 14, 2008. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at Brennan Center For Justice.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you about this one: your “smart” TV may be spying on you. Really.

According to classified documents leaked this week, the CIA found a way to hack the microphone on televisions equipped with voice control and send the audio back to headquarters. It can even record in “fake-off” mode — when the TV looks like it’s off but isn’t, according to notes on project “Weeping Angel.”

See, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Way back in 2014, we noticed a rather ominous warning in the novella-length privacy policy that came with our new smart TV: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.”

That news was bad enough, creating a big privacy problem thanks to the so-called “third-party doctrine,” a legal artifact of the pre-internet age. It basically means you don’t have any privacy in the data you send through third parties like Google or Apple — or Samsung. We’re looking at you too, Amazon Echo.

Now, it appears the CIA has found a way to exploit this vulnerability directly. And it’s a safe bet they’re not the only ones.

To be clear, there is a big difference between tapping a phone line, bugging a hotel room and breaking the internet — or in this case, the Internet of Things. And sometimes a cliché is worth repeating: this may be a means to an end, but it’s a hell of a means.

(Pro tip: You don’t have to connect your smart TV to the internet.)

We now return you to our previously scheduled programing: “I’m Terrified of My New TV: Why I’m Scared to Turn This Thing On — And You’d Be, Too.” Next Up: George Orwell’s acclaimed book 1984. Stay tuned.

Michael Price

Michael Price serves as counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, which seeks to ensure that our government respects human rights and fundamental freedoms in conducting the fight against terrorism. Before joining the Brennan Center, Price was the national security coordinator for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, where he provided legal assistance for the defense of detainees in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.