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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

Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer DJ at community radio station WTJU, where he is a regular host of the American folk show "Atlantic Weekly," as well as the world music program "Radio Tropicale."

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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.

Last updated 3/14/2017
  • ron from spokane

    Posted on 3/11/2017

    Who's to say the current hacks cia has today. The leaks only show old ones. Use common sense for starts don't bug your own home.

  • Rifat from Myrtle Beach

    Posted on 3/11/2017

    Is the Samsung SUHD 8000 seires affected with this issue I dont see any Camera but there is a microphone ?

  • Kenneth Fingeret from Bethpage

    Posted on 3/11/2017

    I agree with ron from spokane. That was my first thought after reading about the hacks by the CIA. We live in an almost totally insane world with only limited pockets of sanity. I expect everything bad to happen due to governments as well as groups of hackers as well as individual hackers. For every improvement there will be corresponding misuse with the intent to cause harm. A never ending battle with evil always looking for the next thing to corrupt.

  • Jeffery Haas from Whittier

    Posted on 3/12/2017

    And you can also just stick a wad of chewing gum over both camera and microphone while you're at it. In fact, a cheap white noise generator that derives power from a photocell works even better on the microphone, and costs about 3 bucks.

  • Ralph from Bainbridge

    Posted on 3/22/2017

    We own a Vizio flat screen, purchased within the past two years. It is a smart tv, but without the built in camera and mics. It does have wi-fi for internet connections, but I turned it off and put the mac address in the blocked list on my broadband modem. I have no need for internet connections on my TV as my internet is low speed DSL and I have DTV satellite service for my TV programing. I guess I am kinda old fashion, I own a tv to watch tv programing, not to surf the internet or stream movies or programming from Netflix or any of the other streaming services. I don't have the time or the money to spend on streaming services. I don't own a smartphone either, just an old flip.

  • John from Reidsville, NC

    Posted on 3/23/2017

    Paranoid may be the word

  • Joe from Greenwood

    Posted on 3/30/2017

    I don't even have mine connected to the internet. I don't pay for TV, either. I use mine as a PC monitor for my home theatre computer.

  • Al from Sarasota

    Posted on 4/14/2017

    You recommended activating the Auto Update feature. Doesn't that just open another potential window for the infiltration of malware?

  • Plain jane from los angeles

    Posted on 5/7/2017

    My tv was not connected to the internet when this clown hacked into my tv. It is now...i will have to disconnect. See if that works.

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