I was shopping for a smart HDTV a couple of weeks ago and did so in the old-fashioned way – by going to stores in my area. I have a vivid imagination but not when it comes to hardware specs. I wanted to see with my own eyes what each TV size looked like ‘in real life’; how picture quality truly varied according to difference in megahertz refresh rate; what ambilight looked like if the TV was not attached to a wall. You get the drift.
A particularly helpful sales assistant drew my attention to inbuilt cameras on the latest models, enabling you to use your TV screen for Skype-ing. She also made it a point to demonstrate how to block the camera using a simple lever attached to the lens itself.
“Make sure you do this whenever the camera is not in use because TV cameras can be hacked,” she said. “There was a woman who wasn’t aware of that and – well, I‘ll tell you no more because your child is listening in. But always block your TV camera,” she warned.
At the time, I filed it as an urban legend to look into later and promptly forgot about it. Until I read about the hacked refrigerator.
That quickly made me Google ‘hacked TV cameras’ and it turns out the sales assistant was right. Mashable last year reported a hack discovered by security research firm iSEC Partners and announced at Black Hat USA. The hack enabled others to take control of a smart TV’s inbuilt camera and program it to watch you – without any external signs that the camera has been activated. In other words, you’d have no clue that your inbuilt camera was being used to watch you as you watched television.
A new take on remote control wars
The same hack would take the battle for remote control ownership to new heights by enabling a third party to manage your remote instead of you, while also granting the hacker control over any of the apps on your set, including any social media apps you access via your TV.
This particular issue has been patched. But the question is: How long until some other such vulnerability is exploited?
As my friend and colleague, David Kelleher, asked in his recent piece The privacy of things, are we bidding privacy farewell as we become more wired? Our TV screens are getting flatter than ever as technology progresses, and there are many benefits to that. Is the downside that our personal privacy is getting pretty translucent too?