Can your TV spy on you like Orwell’s 1984 telescreens?

Today has the makings of an unusual Thursday. As we mentioned at the end of last year, calculations from the Mayan era mark December 21, 2012, as the final day of its Long Count calendar and the point at which the world ends.

So it might be an idea to find yourself a nice, safe, warm bunker, and maybe reconsider resisting that temptation to unwrap your Christmas iPad a few days early.

But if the Mayans were wrong and we all live to fight another day, what does the future hold? They may have been among the earlier members of the doom-mongering crowd, but they certainly weren’t the last: from real life fears of viruses that become resistant to our entire arsenal of medicine to a number of dark fictions, humanity has predicted several bleak futures for itself.

This ranges from the threat of eradication by sentient machines, as in the Terminator and Matrix franchises, to post-apocalyptic worlds where either society falls apart entirely, as in Cormac McCarthy’s depressing tome, The Road, or it takes on a sinister, dystopian form, as in George Orwell’s classic tale 1984.

I feel an “I told you so” coming…

Is this what we have to look forward to after Christmas? As previous predictions have shown, warnings about the end of the world or the downfall of society often tend to be either false or greatly exaggerated – such as fears around the 1910 appearance of Halley’s Comet – but it’s interesting to see some of the concerns around the latest technologies.

As Business Reporter will outline in one of its 2013 supplements, broadcasting is one of various industries benefitting from huge technological strides: because of online connectivity and the proliferation of tablets and other devices, people are able to watch their favourite shows and films on the go rather than being restricted to the comfort of their homes.

And TVs are becoming more connected, with internet-enabled Smart TVs allowing punters to interact with others on the web as part of their viewing experience.

Behold: the future

This also means a shake-up for the industry: it isn’t all about public broadcasters versus pay TV any more, as a gaggle of new competitors such as Netflix step into the fray.

But it isn’t all good news, according to news site MailOnline: this week it ran a story claiming that Samsung’s Smart TV could be used by hackers to observe everything in the owner’s living room thanks to its in-built camera and microphones.

In the article, a Malta-based security firm claims it has learned how to hack the television and access its settings, as well as any personal information stored on the device.

This leads to an interesting paradox: are you watching your TV, or is it the other way round? While you may be sat enjoying the latest instalment of Homeland or catching up on the news, hackers could be scoping out your living room or even just watching you for the fun of it.

Look into my beady eye…

Samsung has assured users this vulnerability can only occur in “extremely unusual circumstances” with Smart TVs released in 2011 and says a software patch, set to be released in January, will solve the problem.

But this isn’t the only Orwellian development: in another twist, cable provider Verizon has applied to patent a set-top box technology which can observe what’s happening in the room – and show adverts based on what it detects.

The detection process could involve a number of different gadgets, including cameras, infrared sensors and even thermal sensors.

And if a viewer is, for example, exercising or playing an instrument in the room, adverts can be configured to market products around these interests.

The view from the TV

Bizarrely, the patent also mentions that the technology could detect when people are “cuddling” and match this with ads for things such as romantic getaways, flowers and even contraceptives.

So if the world doesn’t end after all and you are sitting back at home with your Christmas champers, have a think about the technology around you. As Business Technology  has explained before, smart technology is great because it involves devices talking to each other and being more responsive to their owner’s needs.

This can mean your heating comes on when you reach the house, and a sensor can tell you when your car may need repairs.

But there are, of course, those darker ramifications. So stay curious about the technology – because it’s certainly curious about you.

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