How secure is your smart TV?

Smart TVs can contain a lot of personal information, which may make them a tempting target for hackers.

Dumbing down your smart TV

Ever since TVs turned "smart" and started shipping with inbuilt internet access, they've adopted features and apps that were once reserved for games consoles, media hubs and PCs. Now, you can use a smart TVs as your sole media streaming device, as most support dedicated entertainment programs such as Netflix, Stan and Foxtel Now.

But just because your TV can connect to the internet, doesn't mean it has to. In fact, you may find that removing it from the network is a safer option.

Looking for a new television? Our TV reviews compare over 60 models from Sony, Hisense, Samsung and more.

Do I disconnect?

This may seem like a strange idea at first. After all, if a device can connect to the internet, why not let it go online? Like your PC, smartphone and basically any other connected device, your TV runs the risk of being compromised by unscrupulous types if it’s hooked up to a network. 

Smart TVs can be hacked. In 2013, an online security presentation at the annual Black Hat computer conference revealed a number of vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. These included:

  • Access to inbuilt cameras
  • Files stored on the television
  • Social and communication apps such as Skype

Hackers aren't your only concern however. Back in early 2015, Samsung launched a range of smart TVs with voice controls, with a privacy policy that said spoken information "will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition". Customers, understandably, were unhappy with the notion that their TVs were listening to them 24 hours a day.

It turned out that all voice commands were being sent to an external server for analysis and interpretation, as the TVs didn't have enough processing power to handle the task on their own; however, the company's original, vaguely-worded privacy policy didn't make this clear.

Still, this, combined with the ever present risk of hacking, has prompted people to disconnect their smart TVs. It’s actually a viable option depending on your home media setup. In fact, a connected TV can be almost pointless in some contexts. But is it right for you?

What are the security risks?

This is where the pros and cons of keeping a smart TV connected become a little harder to answer. Once a device goes online, it's vulnerable – and your TV is no exception. However, you need to consider whether or not nefarious types would even be interested in cracking into your TV.

Things have improved over the years. Samsung now makes a point of highlighting security features in their TVs, for example. But protections like third-party anti-virus software that you can get for your PC, isn't really available for smart TVs.

So, yes, TVs can be compromised, and they are full of personal information that may be tempting to cyber-criminals. Whether they’ll actually want to bother, however, is another story. Why? Because hackers tend to go after big targets that will yield a big data haul. Things like:

  • Company servers that store user information
  • Credit card companies
  • Online services (One example is the PlayStation Network outage in 2011, which resulted in thousands of player profiles supposedly leaking online).

Individual attacks generally exist to extort the user, steal personal information or just make their lives difficult. When you look at data stored on a smart TV compared to a games console, smartphone or PC, the time and effort required to crack in for a small cache of details seems impractical.

Is Android an issue?

One potential concern is the introduction of the Android operating system (OS) into some smart TVs. This could, theoretically, make things easier for hackers that have managed to crack smartphones and tablets. However, despite seeing a number of TVs from Sony, TCL and other smaller brands, we’ve seen no evidence of Android exploits.

Can cameras be compromised?

You’ve probably heard a tale or two about hackers getting into webcams to take a look around your home and yes, this could technically occur on TVs too. However, it's been more than two years since a smart TV with an inbuilt camera has come through our labs.

If you do have an older TV with a webcam, you can turn it off by:
  • Sliding down the cover
  • Rotating it towards a wall
  • Taping over the lens (a last ditch alternative if the first two options aren’t available).

Voice commands are still available on many models, but you can deactivate this feature on most TVs if you're concerned about prying ears listening in. If the remote control has an inbuilt microphone, try swapping it out for a third-party model that doesn't support voice commands.

Should I use a different media device?

Before smart TVs were mainstream, devices like games consoles (PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo) and media hubs (Apple TV), were used to stream content. These devices remain popular however. Even now, it’s not uncommon to see PCs plugged into TVs, or people streaming content from their smartphones and tablets to the big screen via devices such as Google Chromecast.

If you're using one of these devices for the bulk of your streaming, then there's no strong case for connecting your TV to the internet 24/7 or even at all. However, if you're using the same set of apps across your TV and a device such as a PlayStation 4 (PS4), you may want to consider choosing between the two. The decision comes down to two points:
  • Software/service options
  • Preferred interface

Most, if not all, entertainment apps on your smart TV – such as Netflix, Stan and free-to-air catchup services – can be found on media hubs and consoles. There may be minor variations in functions, menus and features, but the content will generally match up.

External devices can usually do a whole lot more as well – the PS4 supports video games, DVD and Blu-ray for example, while Apple TV makes it much easier to sync and stream content between Apple devices.

Unless there's an exclusive app for your smart TV that you absolutely can't live without, or space is a factor, you'll find that an external device is usually a better alternative, offering more flexibility and processing power.

The cost of convenience

Almost any device and program connected to the internet is storing data on an external server of some kind. Unfortunately, that's the nature of the connected world, and the trade-off for the convenience of high-tech gadgets can be your digital privacy. How much of this you're willing to tolerate in exchange for the conveniences offered by devices that are always online is up to you.

If you use your TV as the primary entertainment device to access media streaming services, you'll need to keep it connected to the internet. Follow the same security steps as you would on a computer or smartphone:

  • Don't use "easy" or "quick" set-up when activating a new device. Look for "custom settings" that let you turn individual privacy features on or off. 
  • Look for a condensed version of the privacy policy, and read the notes when manufacturers or developers release a software update.
  • Don't download software that looks suspicious. This is particularly important as anti-virus software isn't really available for smart TVs.
  • Add two-step authentication to apps that require a login, if it's available.

Also, connect to the network via Ethernet if you can. It's much harder for hackers to break into a hardwired connection compared to Wi-Fi.

If most media is accessed via console, PC or hub such as Apple TV, you probably don't need to connect your smart TV to the internet 24/7. However, you should log in every few months, as TV manufacturers often release important system updates and security patches.

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