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How Secure Are Smart TVs?

Here’s a side issue worth considering. Since a smart TV or smart TV device connects to the Internet and has a CPU and an OS, it’s just as capable of being hacked as is your typical desktop or notebook computer. You don’t think of your smart TV as a computer, but it really is. And just like a computer can be hacked or attacked over the Internet, so can your smart TV.

Hacking Into the System

Why would anybody want to hack your smart TV? For starters, because it stores some interesting personal information, in the form of user names and passwords for all the services you subscribe to, such as Netflix and Hulu. And if you subscribe to Amazon Instant Videos, that’s the user name and password for your entire Amazon account. See where that might lead?

And hacking doesn’t have to be that malicious. So-called man-in-the-middle attacks place the attacker between the Internet service or broadcaster and the smart TV, enabling the attacker to feed his own content to the victim’s screen. Instead of getting the service’s normal commercials, then, you may receive commercials from the attacker’s company. Not necessarily world endangering, but still not desirable.

In case this seems too theoretical, consider this real-world example of smart TV hacking. In June 2014, Columbia University researchers Yossef Oren and Angelos Keromytis exposed a flaw in the Hybrid Broadcast-Broadband Television Standard (HbbTV) used on millions of European smart TVs. HbbTV has been adopted by 90% of smart TV manufacturers in Europe to add interactive HTML content to terrestrial, cable, and satellite signals. Oren and Keromytis revealed that the HbbTV standard is vulnerable to large-scale exploitations that would be “remarkably difficult to detect.”

This so-called “red button” attack, named after the red button on a user’s remote control, would enable a hacker to intercept the sound, picture, and accompanying data sent by a broadcast. The attacker then becomes the broadcaster, feeding whatever content he wants to the victim—and receiving data sent by the victim to various smart TV apps. A hacker could use this exploit to display bogus commercials on a victim’s TV screen, or log into the victim’s Facebook account and post with that person’s name.

What this type of attack reveals is the paltry amount of security inherent in this new generation of connected devices. A smart TV (or any smart device) needs to be every bit as secure as your computer system, and most aren’t. Where your computer is protected (somewhat) by a firewall application, most smart TVs do not have even this basic level or protection. This leaves them vulnerable to attacks that wouldn’t be near as successful on a more secure personal computer.

An Eye Into Your Living Room

Then there are the security issues presented by those smart TVs that include builtin cameras. Imagine a man-in-the-middle attack where an attacker gains control of your TV’s camera, and uses it to spy on whatever you’re doing in your living room or bedroom. This could be simply voyeuristic or it could let the attacker know when you’re out of the house, thus setting you up for potential burglary.

Again, this isn’t a theoretical issue. Researchers Aaron Grattafiori and Josh Yavor, security engineers at the firm ISEC Partners, recently discovered a security hole in some Samsung smart TVs (like the one we examined earlier in this chapter) that enabled attackers to hack into the Skype application and remotely turn on and control the TV’s built-in camera. That’s scary stuff.

Now, to the company’s benefit, Samsung promptly sent out updates to its devices to patch this security flaw. And if you’re really concerned about your TV spying on you, you can always put duct tape over the built-in camera. Not very elegant, but effective.

Official Snooping

Unsolicited snooping doesn’t have to be the province of black hat hackers and the criminal element. It’s equally likely that your smart TV’s manufacturer is spying on you.

In November 2013, British tech blogger Doctorbeet discovered that his then-new LG smart TV was keeping track of everything he watched. Every time he changed the channel, the activity was logged and transmitted back to the LG mothership. LG then knew every program he watched and could use that data however it saw fit.

LG calls this “service” Smart Ad, because it sells the collected data to advertisers. According to LG, Smart Ad “analyses user’s favorite programs, online behavior, search keywords, and other information to offer relevant ads to target audiences.” Hoo boy.

Now, there’s a setting on that particular LG model called Collection of Watching Info. It’s toggled on by default, no surprise, and most people would never get that deep into the menu system to turn it off. Well, Doctorbeet did tiptoe into the menus and deactivated this setting. Unfortunately, it had no effect on the data collection, which continued unabated. So much for viewer choice.

You know what’s even worse? This information is sent back to LG in unencrypted form. That means any reasonably tech-savvy monkey could intercept the data and know what programs you’re watching when. That could be relatively harmless, unless you’re watching something that you don’t want your spouse or employer or pastor to know about. Scary, eh?

By the way, LG later responded to Doctorbeet’s publicizing this issue by changing their terms of service, but not in a good way. Now, if you opt not to agree to this invasion of privacy, LG disables most of the “smart” functionality in your smart TV. That’s one way of dealing with the issue, I suppose, but it’s not really 21st-century privacy savvy.

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