Smart TVs tempt dystopian intrusion

As George Orwell perished at the hand of tuberculosis in the 1940s, he conceived and authored his masterpiece Nineteen-Eighty Four as a representation of the "possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn't conclusive."

The novel tells the story of Oceania, a continent in a constant state of war with a varying enemy, controlled by the government through various interconnected ministries and under constant surveillance of the watchful eye of party leader Big Brother, the depiction that inspired the TV show which went on to appropriate the name.

In the novel, Big Brother watches citizens in their homes and delivers instructions through a 'telescreen': a home surveillance device in every residence that broadcasts a constant vision to and from the government, surveying the environment with its inbuilt camera and microphone; leaving nary a nook or cranny unobserved.

The concept of surveillance entering private lives chilled audiences in the late 1940s because readers couldn't fathom their new window to the world becoming a window into theirs.

The foretold year passed without incident. Orwell's American publisher believed Orwell simply swapped the digits of the then-current year of 1948 to reach 1984.

His haphazard method proved to be 38 years off the mark.

At the 2012 Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, Samsung (and other major manufacturers) proudly displayed their latest innovation: 'smart' TVs.

With 3D TV flailing, the industry sought innovation from the burgeoning smart phone industry and connected the once humble cathode ray to the internet.

From the comfort of your couch, you can now surf the net, check email, log on to Facebook, tweet and Skype with your friends around the globe using the state-of-the-art 5 megapixel webcam and microphone embedded in the television pane in the same invisible position sported by the iMac.

The addition of a camera and microphone to your entertainment experience offers other advantages to the home viewer. Can't find the remote? Don't get up! The camera and microphone pick up voice commands and gesture controls: simply talk to the television or address the camera with waves of your hands to change channels or turn the volume up or down.

Your humble lounge room can now be host to a fully functional internet communication terminal equipped with eyes and ears trained to keenly observe you at all times.

With such powerful technology connected to the ever-vulnerable web, the smart arena - a concept sprung from powerful mobile devices which incorporate various modern technologies, can run apps and access the net - has been attracting the attention of hackers.

Internet security company Mocana has been watching the smart industry since it was just really clever.

"While much public discussion is currently focused on the recent explosion of smartphones," said Mocana CEO Adam Turner, "what's not being talked about is that fact that the vast majority of new devices coming onto the internet aren't phones at all: they are devices like television sets, industrial machines, medical devices and automobiles – devices representing every conceivable industry," he said.

He's alarmed by the naivety amongst these new eager tech players. "The one thing that all these manufacturers have in common,' he said, "is that, unlike the computing industry, they don't have deep experience in security technology."

Smart devices are prolific, Turner noted; the benefit of being networked to a 'smart' home extending to gadgets such as GPS devices, home security systems and of course smart phones and other handheld computing devices.

Even whitegoods are becoming networked smart goods: LG recently announced an internet-enabled refrigerator that keeps tracks of your groceries to suggest recipes to its corresponding smartphone app based on food in your fridge. The fridge then broadcasts the recipe to your smart oven, which pre-heats to the correct temperature and sets the timer.

In an increasingly connected world, more and more devices will be joining the wide web of your home. At a recent summit for In-Q-Tel, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus mused that "everything from fridges and ovens to doorbells and clock radios" will be joining the connected fray.

In-Q-Tel is "a not-for-profit venture capital firm formed in 1999 that invests in high-tech companies for the sole purpose of keeping the CIA and other US intelligence agencies equipped with the latest in information technology to support United States intelligence capability." In essence, to keep pace with the rapid technological advances of the private sector, an increasingly daunting task.

Petreaus, CIA director since 6 September 2011, revealed at the In-Q-Tel summit that he has identified 'items of interest' that can be "located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters — all connected to the next-generation Internet".

In-Q-Tel's stated aim is to allow the CIA to access technological innovations for its purposes; which is "collecting intelligence, through human sources and by other appropriate means".

That means if you're a person of interest to the CIA, your smart device is also an item of interest.

Petraeus allowed that these household spy devices "change our notions of secrecy" and prompt a rethink of "our notions of identity and secrecy."

Deakin University chair of information services Professor Matthew Warren believes that the marriage of surveillance technology and smart devices does invite intrusion.

"One of the issues is the issue of remote access," said Warren. "Some of the smart TV manufacturers are actually putting forward applications that allow people to use them as surveillance devices remotely, so you can check the cats aren't destroying the furniture and such."

The people creating apps for the new smart television platform aren't dumb to the system's home network surveillance capability: smart TV app maker iWatch boasts they "released an app for Samsung Smart TVs in [North America] that lets people see any USB webcam attached to their PC or laptop."

This 'smart' technology is openly designed to be used for "video surveillance purposes", but Warren believes that installing them on your smart TV is dumb.

"When those applications are enabled in smart TVs," he said, "there is the possibility of anyone to manipulate the applications and technologies. If a hack did get access to the app on the internet-enabled smart TV, they would be able to view what's going on in your living room."

"'Transformational' is an overused word," Petraeus gushed at the summit, "but I do believe it properly applies to these technologies."

To review this, Mocana set about exploiting the vulnerability in a internet-enabled smart TV to expose its weaknesses. Their report found that accessing the device was as easy as writing a JavaScript program to make a connection appear as if it is coming from a different legitimate function of the television, such as Skype needing to access the camera. Once through accessory gateway, they were able to access the complete connected home network, including the other networked devices including webcams, microphones, data storage, alarms and other home devices.

When asked if there was any fear of Australian smart devices being subject to such nefarious scrutiny, Warren maintains we are just as prone as anyone else. "Any internet-enabled device, IP device," he said, "can be attacked, can be manipulated. In IT-based technologies there are a number of security vulnerabilities and risks which can be manipulated. If those IP-based communication systems are then run by a third party, the problem that consumers have is the fact that they don't necessarily know what's being done in the background."

Once installed to your smart TV, applications are left to their own devices. "The problem with these particular applications is that they can operate in the background," said Warren, "meaning you wouldn't necessarily know that the applications are being run or being used by a third party."

It's not only an intrusion by the government we should fear, according to Warren. "You have the situation that the hacking group Anonymous claims to have hacked in to a IP video conferencing call between between Scotland Yard and US authorities; so you're also talking about such hacking groups. Anonymous hacking group is claiming that they have the technology to intercept these kind of IP-based calls as well."

"If people do have concerns about the privacy aspect they shouldn't use that particular brand of smart TVs or download those particular applications to those smart TVs," he surmised.

But should we fear an impending dystopian society because of smart TVs? Are these smart TVs actually telescreens?

"The difference [between smart TVs and telescreens is that telescreens] were introduced by the state to monitor the population," said Warren. "In terms of the smart TV, what you have is consumers making their own choices to implement the new technology."

"Quite simply, if you do have concerns about that, you wouldn't necessarily install and implement those applications."

"Privacy concerns and issues are actually driven by consumers and their demands to have the latest technology," concluded Warren. "It's something that George Orwell never considered: that people would freely give away their rights and privileges so easily."

In 1948, readers were aghast at the suggestion of telescreens. In 2012, customers may be lining up to buy the very first one, which they will then brag about to their friends.

Thank heavens the atomic war was conclusive.

Samsung and LG both declined to be interviewed for this piece.