FBI Warns: Smart TVs a Major Security Threat

John Lister's picture

The FBI has warned users to think carefully when buying and using "smart" televisions.

The warning is based on the idea that many people have bought or will buy new televisions either as part of "Black Friday" or in time for Christmas.

The warning from the FBI's Portland office is based partly on the prospect that people might not have set out to buy smart sets, but that most or all of the TVs on offer currently have such features. (Source: techcrunch.com)

Cameras and Microphones on Some Sets

A "smart" television is simply one that has an Internet connection. Previously that's mainly been about using apps to access online video services such as Netflix without needing to use a plug-in device such as an Amazon Fire TV Stick, or hook up a computer.

However, some sets now use the Internet connection to remotely process voice commands on the television, so that users don't have to reach for the remote control and manually enter in a command. Some smart TVs even have cameras for other features, such as video calling.

Smart TVs May be Re-Programmed by Cyber Criminals

Essentially, smart TVs these days are powerful enough and can operate as a fully functional PC. Thus, the FBI says this brings two potential, and major security risks.

One is that hackers may be able to monitor owners either by tracking what they watch, or hijacking microphones and cameras on the device.

The other is that some TVs have weak security, or may suffer a security exploit in the future. This means that the TV could be re-programmed to infect other machines on the network, including mobile devices and PCs in the same home. (Source: fbi.gov)

For example, a television could be compromised and then remotely controller by cyber criminals, which could then relay a ransomware infection on a network. Once a machine is infected with ransomware, cyber criminals may demand $1,000 or more to unlock files on a device.

Five Step Plan

According to the FBI, users should take the following steps if they have a smart TV:

  • Check up on the set's features and capabilities, even if they aren't of interest.
  • Search online for "your [TV's] model number and the words 'microphone,' 'camera,' and 'privacy.'"
  • Look at settings menus and see if you can change passwords and/or switch off cameras and microphones.
  • Put black tape over a camera if you can't switch it off manually.
  • Check whether the manufacturer has the ability to remotely patch the television to fix security bugs and, if so, whether they use this ability.
  • Find out what data the manufacturer and app operators collect about users and what they do with this information.

What's Your Opinion?

Is this advice useful? Do you know what capabilities your TV has and whether you can change any settings to boost privacy? Have you bought a TV set with "smart" features even if you didn't want them or intend to use them?

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Dennis Faas's picture

Although Smart TV's are convenient, I'd rather use a computer to control my TV. This is currently how I have things set up. For example, I have a 'server' machine which is also used as a media PC. I have this machine attached to an HDMI matrix / splitter, which then broadcasts the same signal via HDMI cable to multiple TVs in the house.

Using this setup, I can stream Netflix or Prime Video through the server / media PC's web browser or watch videos through Kodi. I do this using an Xbox 360 controller I have hooked up to my Server machine. It works great. Best of all, I have full control of the computer - so no worries about being spied on when I'm watching TV, or that my TV is going to infect my network. Certainly, the same is not true when you attach a Smart TV to the network.

S.carbonaro_13016's picture

Smart TV’s are one more step toward the surveillance state, which will be complete with the roll out of the IoT. I’ll give up television before I’ll bring a “smart” anything into my home. It just might be smarter than I am. I already have a wife that is, and she wouldn’t like the competition.
Having been born before the invention of the remote control, I wonder if technology will prove to benefit mankind or destroy it. Imagine being too lazy to pick up a remote and punch a button or two. The easier life becomes the softer the living become. I was warning folks about this ten years ago. Seems the FBI is a bit slow on the uptake!

Jim-in-kansas's picture

S.carbonaro ---------------No fooling.

I use a password on my local router in my home so unless my ROKU stick is compromised I feel I have a small bit of security.