Electronic Privacy Information Center Concerned With “Always On” Technology

By Joseph D. McClendon

Washington D.C.-based non-profit and privacy advocate group, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), is urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the legality of “always on” tech devices that record audio and video even when the devices aren’t actively being used. In a letter to the FTC and DOJ, EPIC argues that consumers can’t be expected to monitor what they say and do in their private spaces when “always on” consumer devices are recording every sound and movement. EPIC also alleges that the devices may violate federal wiretapping laws in addition to using deceptive marketing practices in order to get more products in to consumers’ homes.

Devices that use “always on” technology allow consumers to interact with the device by using keywords or motions to instigate the interaction. For example, Samsung’s Smart TV, an internet-connected television, will turn on and begin listening for additional voice commands when the consumer says “Hi TV.” EPIC’s concern is that these “always on” smart devices have to always be listening and recording, even when the device isn’t actively being used, in order to recognize a consumer’s “wake up” command. Because these devices are always listening, EPIC alleges that product manufacturers like Samsung and Microsoft have unfettered access to consumers’ private conversations and have not been up front with what they are doing with the private information.

Mattel has recently been subject to a high level of scrutiny for its use of speech recognition and analytics technology because of its new “Hello Barbie” doll. Hello Barbie records the conversations a child has with it and transmits those conversations over Wi-Fi to Mattel’s cloud servers for speech recognition analysis. Privacy groups allege that even though the listening and recording functions have to be manually activated, the child will still be able to share private information with a toy manufacturer that will be recorded and saved for analysis and possible predatory marketing efforts.

EPIC’s letter urges the FTC and DOJ to investigate companies that use “always on” technology in consumer products and offers several questions for the agencies to consider during the investigations, including how the captured information is used, where it is stored, who has access to it, what laws regulate recording in the home, and how consent should be handled when more than one person lives in the home.