Is Your Smart TV Spying on You?

Your smart TV may be spying on you. If you've paid attention to all the WikiLeaks scandals the past few years, you probably already know that, but you may not realize the spying is carried out by more than big government and cybercriminals. It's also alive and well among manufacturers, and devices you assume are secure may be susceptible.

New Types of Hacking Tools

To make matters worse, new emerging spy methods are turning the concept of privacy into a thing of the past. For example, in 2017, researchers at the University of Washington showed how software called CovertBand could use a smart device's sound system to track the movement of people in a room. It works by hiding nearly undetectable "chirp" signals in music, and those signals bounce off human bodies and act like sonar signals to device microphones. The software could detect multiple people within approximately 20 feet of the device and was accurate to within seven inches.

Another hack demonstrated in the spring of 2017 uses radio signals to exploit known weaknesses in the web browsers running on smart TVs. Basically, hackers exploit security flaws in TVs’ web browsers and then use an inexpensive transmitter to embed code into a rogue TV signal. When that signal is broadcast, hackers can take over the TVs in that area. Once hackers control the TV, they can control other devices and monitor activities in the home. The method uses security flaws in the web browsers of the TVs.

One of the latest spying methods uses a neural network and a new algorithm developed jointly by researchers at Tel Aviv University and Cornell University to analyze patterns in data streams from encrypted videos, such as those from Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, to determine what you're watching. All the hacker needs is access to your Wi-Fi network.

Here’s how it works: Video streams typically are transmitted in segments, called bursts, and are compressed using variable bit-rate compression so bursts of the same length have different quantities of data. Measuring the bits per segment length creates a digital fingerprint that can be matched to other, selected videos once their pattern is known.

This new method requires training the neural net using a library of prints that a cybercriminal may be following to compare your leaky data to that of those videos. It's similar to comparing fingerprints, but it has 99% accuracy once trained.

These tools and others could be used by governments for spying. WikiLeaks publicized such a plan by the UK and U.S. in April 2017. Code named Weeping Angel, it specifically targets Samsung's F8000 Smart TVs, allowing them to record audio through their built-in microphones. Key features include a fake "off" mode and a Wi-Fi reconnect to convince users the TV is turned off, even when it's still recording. Plans also discussed strategies to use similar methods to record video and to use the TV's Wi-Fi to transmit that data.

Manufacturers and Set-Top Boxes

These capabilities are certainly unnerving, but the most likely scenario is that smart TV manufacturers are monitoring viewing habits and selling the information to marketers. In other words, the spymaster is often the TV manufacturer. Vizio was fined $2.2 million by the Federal Trade Commission in February 2017 for tracking what their TV owners (identified by IP address) were watching and then selling that information to advertisers. Other TV manufacturers also track viewing habits but haven't been caught selling it to marketers.

However, data collection isn't always the fault of manufacturers. TV set-top boxes and Wi-Fi routers can be hacked with relative ease. In 2013, for example, the "Linux/Flasher.A" bot was discovered after it collected login credentials from smart TVs, tablets, smartphones and PCs. Infiltration was fairly easy because older routers were poorly secured. At the time, cable companies often used the same passwords for all the boxes they provided, and cable subscribers couldn't change them easily. Therefore, anyone with the password for one router or set-top box could infiltrate many others. To make matters worse, many pieces of equipment had built-in backdoors.

More recently, in September 2016, the botnet named Mirai posed a major disruption by turning Internet of Things (IoT) devices into zombies – botnet hosts – that overwhelmed the internet with their traffic. There fears that the Hajime botnet that combats it could also be used for cyber attacks.

Fortunately, TV and cable box manufacturers are wising up. Routers manufactured in the past few years are generally more secure than their older counterparts. That said, the Federal Communications Commission dropped plans in 2017 to require cable providers to unlock their boxes for third party developers. If the plan had been approved, cable consumers would have been able to choose their own set-top boxes for more customized functionality and greater security.

Unplugging from the internet is the most effective way to eliminate cybersecurity risks, but it's highly impractical in this modern era. Instead, install a streaming box or cast from your device to a dongle attached to your TV to extend the protection offered by your devices' anti-malware applications to your TV. And always remain vigilant.