Be careful about what you say in your living room if your new TV is on. News broke earlier this week that Samsung’s Web-connected SmartTV can listen to, record, and send what the television hears to a third-party company. The television doesn’t watch you watch it back, but it is listening.
Sci-fi great Philip K. Dick warned us about this decades ago. In his classic 1969 novel Ubik, the characters have to negotiate the way they move and how they communicate with inanimate objects that monitor them, lock them out, and force payments.
In this passage from Ubik, a man is actually locked out by a door that requires a mandatory payment to open. And when he grabs a tool to disassemble the doorknob, the door threatens him with a lawsuit for violating his user contract. It’s prescient, to say the least.
Ian Steadman of the New Statesman pointed out the excerpt in a tweet:
Philip K Dick's "Ubik" (1969) manages to explain in half a page why the Internet of Things will suck under capitalism pic.twitter.com/PPnGEH5AzX— Ian Steadman (@iansteadman) February 9, 2015
Here’s one of the problems: Although we agree to terms of service agreements when we use digital products, way more often than not, we don’t read them. They tend to be long and full of legalese, yet these contracts often contain important information about the need to turn off features that, when left on, may overstep the intended purpose of the product. Like a TV that records your private living room conversations, for example.
Samsung isn’t alone. In 2013, an LG Web–connected TV was found to be collecting users’ viewing data. It's not like Samsung is the federal government, but by now we all know how readily tech companies may hand over user information to law enforcement when presented with a subpoena.
When our devices do things we didn’t realize we signed up for, the potential for exploitative practices expands. Maybe we should listen closer to predictive science fiction. Imagine if the door in Ubik were a refrigerator door that refused to open? What then?