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How to keep your TV from spying on you

The recent WikiLeaks-CIA news is troubling, but you're still in control

Man watching a wall of TVs

Smart TVs turned into Spy TVs?

You've probably seen the reports, based on WikiLeaks documents, claiming the CIA's use of malware enabled them to spy on people through certain Samsung TVs, iOS®, Android™, and Windows® devices. This is troubling news for anyone who uses any type of smart device.

The documents claim that the CIA was able to insert a "Fake Off" mode to make targeted TVs appear to be off, while still powered up. This would allow spies to record conversations or video from TV models equipped with a microphone or camera.

We're very concerned about that possibility because we sell Samsung TVs and a lot of us here own them.

Which TVs are affected?

This hack, code-named "Weeping Angel," only affects Samsung smart TVs from 2012 and 2013 that run the older 1111, 1112 and 1116 versions of the company's firmware.

If you own a 2012 or 2013 Samsung TV, check to see if it's one of these models:

  • 2012: UNES8000F-series and UNES7550F-series LCD, or E8000GF-series plasma
  • 2013: UNF8000-series, UNF7500-series & UNF7000-series LCD, or F8500-series plasma

The WikiLeaks information describes the hacking of specific individual devices: the CIA needed to plug a USB drive into a TV to make the hack work. And newer TVs with firmware version 1118+ aren't susceptible to the USB hack.

To check your TV's firmware version or to update it, go to the main menu, select "Support," then select "Software Update."

Hacks and malware are the new reality

Tech companies are engaged in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with hackers to try to protect the people who just want to use and enjoy their products. Back in 2015, Samsung acknowledged that hackers could compromise the voice-control feature in some of their TVs, and then took steps to fix the problem.

There are some steps to take if you want to turn off the voice recording capabilities on your Samsung television. You can go to your settings menu, then select "Smart Features." From there, you can choose "Voice Recognition" and turn it off.

Newer Samsung smart TVs have a Smart Security feature, which protects the TV when it's connected to the internet. The TV's operating system includes controls to prevent the installation of unauthorized apps. And certain sensitive communications between the TV and internet servers are encrypted.

The WikiLeaks story first broke on Tuesday, and on Thursday, in an interesting twist, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange announced that his organization will work with tech companies like Samsung, Google, and Apple to patch security holes before it releases more details on the CIA's hacking program.

Make smart choices with your smart TV

Choosing a TV without smart features isn't easy, especially if you want a high-quality model. Nearly three quarters of the TVs that will be sold in the US in 2017 will include some type of smart capability. But if you buy a smart TV, or already own one, there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of unwanted snooping.

Keep your TV's software updated

Increasingly, tech companies use firmware updates to upgrade the security and/or functionality of their products. If you are notified that a software update is available for your TV, you should install it promptly. It's a good idea to go into the TV's menu and turn on the set's "Auto Update" feature so that updates will be received automatically.

Disable the camera

If your TV has a built-in camera, recess the camera into the TV's bezel when it is not in use. Recessing the camera makes it inoperative.

When in doubt, opt out

Newer TVs make it easy to decline certain types of web-based communication and data-sharing with the manufacturer. You make these selections during initial setup, or in the Settings menu if you change your mind later on. When we contacted Samsung, they said that even if a user agrees to data sharing, Samsung never sells that data to third-party firms.

Of course, if you're willing to give up all those cool web-related features, the most effective protection from hackers, unscrupulous companies, and government spies, is to simply disconnect your TV from the internet.