Your Samsung TV is spying on you—and Ray Bradbury predicted it 60 years ago

Can we ever trust a TV that listens to everything we say?


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 16, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 12:59 pm CDT

The Simpsons did a great “Treehouse of Horror” episode in 1994 wherein Homer refers to television as his “teacher, mother, [and] secret lover.” But what about television as surveillance officer?

Many must have asked this question after it came out that Samsung Smart TVs are basically listening to and sharing everything you say. Unearthed from the depths of their privacy policy, reports revealed that the voice-command feature on Samsung Smart TVs picks up your words and sends them to a third party, which then converts what you’re saying into readable data. Samsung has, unsurprisingly, gone on the defensive following this revelation, insisting that it uses industry-standard safeguards to prevent whatever data you’re feeding your TV from falling into the wrong hands. However, a deeper look into the policy finds an ominous passage that reads: “Samsung is not responsible for these providers’ privacy or security practices. You should exercise caution and review the privacy statements applicable to the third-party websites and services you use.”

These days, privacy scares are even more common than Kanye West controversies, so Samsung’s sneaky privacy policies here shouldn’t be too surprising. If anything has become evident in a post-Snowden world, it’s that we’re all being watched. It doesn’t matter if you’re signing up for Facebook or just shopping at Target; the digital age is an age of surveillance. And with our phones and computers already monitoring our every activity, it’s not a surprise that our televisions are next.

While televisions were around long before the digital revolution, the TV as a tool for surveillance has a certain bittersweet comedy to it because the entertainment we consume may be the main reason we’re all so paranoid about technology in the first place. From Ray Bradbury to George Orwell, pop culture has given us countless depictions of the television as a force of control, but the very industry that brought us those prophecies of a dystopian future is turning on us. Today, if you turn on your Samsung TV, you can even watch CSI: Cyber, a show dedicated to the abuse of technological power.

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Of course, technology-related paranoia predates Fahrenheit 451. Sigmund Freud protégé Victor Tausk published a paper in 1919 about what he called “the influencing machine,” after several patients became convinced that they were being controlled by the growing number of electrical implementations in modern society. In other cases, new forms of technology have facilitated panic by way of misunderstanding. Years before Tausk’s research, legend has it that Parisians fled from a moving train headed toward them on a movie screen. Years after that, many listening to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds program believed the broadcast was real, simply because they heard it on the radio.

The political landscape of the times obviously plays a big part in tech paranoia, too. Prior to fears about the NSA, the Cold War planted fears about spying in many Americans’ brains, aided by the release of such works as Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. And as technology has continued to evolve over the last century, pop culture has only fed into the paranoia surrounding it more and more. The seemingly evergreen stories of The Twilight Zone and the increasingly adapted tales of Philip K. Dick are nothing if not proof of this.

Then there’s The Truman Show, Aussie director Peter Weir’s 1998 treatise on the psychology of being watched. In The Truman Show, the titular protagonist’s paranoia ends up being very real, as Truman discovers he is the star of America’s most popular TV show. Weir’s film preceded the rise of reality TV, which took off two years later with the debut of Survivor, just as reality TV preceded the rise of social media. With the Internet, you don’t even need a television program for people to tune into your life. Now, all you need is a decent Wi-Fi connection and a working computer (or smartphone). If Truman was an unwitting participant in his surveillance, we are all active accomplices in ours.

But is pop culture a product or a cause of our phobias? Mike Jay at Aeon wrote about this quandary: “Clinical psychiatry papers rarely make much of a splash in the wider media, but it seems appropriate that a paper entitled ‘The Truman Show Delusion: Psychosis in the Global Village,’ published in the May 2012 issue of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, should have caused a global sensation.” In crafting this paper, Jay writes, “Brothers Joel and Ian Gold, presented a striking series of cases in which individuals had become convinced that they were secretly being filmed for a reality TV show.”

Sounds absurd, right? And maybe it is. However, in the minds of individuals who already have mental health problems or are prone to indulging in flights of conspiracy theories, pop culture can become not just a part of their subconscious but also a whole new way of processing the world around them. “Rather than being estranged from the culture around them, psychotic subjects can be seen as consumed by it: Unable to establish the boundaries of the self, they are at the mercy of their often heightened sensitivity to social threats,” Jay argues. Of course, the Internet only exacerbates this problem—for instance, take a look at this thread in Reddit‘s r/Conspiracy about mind control.

In the world we live in today, tech paranoia spreads for three reasons:

  1. We consume entertainment that feeds into it. 
  2. Evidence emerges about technology that appears to confirm it. 
  3. Most of us are willing to live with a little paranoia, in exchange for controlling the narrative of our digital lives. 

As Jay explains:

When we watch live sporting events on giant public screens or follow breaking news stories in our living rooms, we are only receiving flickering images, yet our hearts beat in synchrony with millions of unseen others. We Skype with two-dimensional facsimiles of our friends, and model idealised versions of ourselves for our social profiles. Avatars and aliases allow us to commune at once intimately and anonymously. Multiplayer games and online worlds allow us to create customised realities as all-embracing as The Truman Show. Leaks and exposés continually undermine our assumptions about what we are revealing and to whom, how far our actions are being monitored and our thoughts being transmitted. We manipulate our identities and are manipulated by unknown others. We cannot reliably distinguish the real from the fake, or the private from the public.

The flip side to this is that many books, movies, and TV shows that feed into our paranoia about technology have nothing to do with the the way technology actually works. In recent years, several movies about the Internet have come out which have done an especially bad job at being efficient “cautionary tales” of the digital age. Describing Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children, which came out last year, the Daily Dot’s Dominick Mayer characterizes the movie as an “ensemble piece about the world’s many new issues with which it must contend in the era of the Internet: porn addiction, affair websites, gaming addiction, a general sense of isolation, and so forth.” 

It vaguely recalls last year’s onerous Disconnect, another film predicated on the idea that technology is generally more bad than good and has made us unable to communicate, as illustrated by ham-handed metaphors. Men, Women & Children isn’t quite as tedious as that film but suffers from similar woes. In its alarmism, it ends up disconnecting itself from the Internet as it might be recognizable to its ostensible audience.

Meanwhile, other films, like last year’s just as poorly received Transcendence, didn’t hit their mark because they highlight technological dystopias that just aren’t close to being a reality yet. Is it possible for the science in something like Transcendence to become a part of everyday life? Possibly. But we’re just not there right now, making some of the movie’s grand ideas look more absurd than anything. At least The Matrix presented its sci-fi paranoia as much as an allegory for contemporary humanity as a specific likelihood for the near future (though it doesn’t present its dystopia as an impossibility, either).

So calm down for a minute. Technology will not destroy us, at least not yet, and the NSA is not out to get you. Still, if you plan on watching The Truman Show on your Smart TV or your laptop anytime soon, take a moment to ponder the irony of how you are now a part of the cycle of paranoia that makes The Truman Show such a compelling movie in the first place.  

Screengrab via Universal/YouTube

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*First Published: Feb 16, 2015, 12:00 pm CST