From Binge Watching to Bad Actors: Are Smart TVs The Next Attack Vector Into Consumer's Homes?


Smart TV sales have been booming around the world; a recent study published by IHS Markit showed that that the global unit-share of Smart TVs rose from 45% of total TV shipments in 2015 to 64% in 2017 and will likely surpass 70% by the end of this year.

“Global growth is expected in all regions this year, and positive annual unit growth is forecast to continue during the buildup toward the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo,” said Paul Gagnon, research and analysis executive director, IHS Markit. “The rise of streaming video availability worldwide, especially for special events like the World Cup and Olympics, along with continued growth for global streaming video services, have encouraged strong growth in smart TV sales in recent years.”

Gagnon also believes that smart TV are enjoying accelerating adoption as global TV shipments recover in 2018 due to increased price erosion from declining LCD TV panel prices, with shipments rising 3.5% to 223 million units.

Gagon’s report adds that consumers are increasingly considering streaming to be as basic a TV function as off-air broadcast reception and notes that streaming remains the only way to access Ultra HD (UHD) content for most consumers, with smart TV reinforcing the value of 4K resolution screens, now available to mass consumers given price drops.  

“The rise of streaming video availability worldwide, especially for special events like the World Cup and Olympics, along with continued growth for global streaming video services, have encouraged strong growth in smart TV sales in recent years,” IHS Markit says, and the “increased availability and integration of Amazon Alexa, Google Home and other popular digital voice assistants will further increase demand for smart TVs in 2018 and beyond.”

It’s all good – right?

Then it starts to sink in: Smart TVs, sometimes referred to as connected TVs or hybrid TVs, are
“television sets” with integrated Internet and interactive "Web 2.0" features – otherwise known as computers.

While Smart TV converges flat screen TVs and set-top boxes, they are not just for consumption of broadcast and streamed content. They are interactive, and that means they are accessing private information, for example credit cards used to purchase products “as seen on TV”.

With co-watching, online gaming, and other human interactive pursuits, Smart TVs are becoming real time communications hubs and not only that – they are becoming the latest way for cybercriminals to tunnel into millions of homes.

Unlike smartphones and computers, Smart TVs still lack essential security features and software, and security expert Daniel Markuson, Digital Privacy Expert at NordVPN, says, “While TV cyberattacks are not widespread yet, it’s only a matter of time when the weaknesses of smart TVs will be used to get into our personal lives and data.”

“Smart TVs have similar vulnerabilities to computers or smartphones, as they are constantly connected to the internet and come with built-in apps to surf the web, listen to music, stream or play games,” Markuson continued.

“Smart TVs can be used to access files on a cloud or even shop online. They store large amounts of personal and financial data that may cause a lot of problems in wrong hands. Additionally, an attacker from afar could potentially cause smart TV to download malware or turn on your webcam.”

NordVPN provides superfast private networking capabilities and earlier this year launched a native Android TV app that encrypts end users’ online activities to protect consumers and their data.

Markuson, in a security notification from NordVPN sent out last week, listed these guidelines:

  • Choose your smart TV with security in mind. When buying any tech gadget, it is important to do some homework: read up on possible vulnerabilities and check consumer reviews as well as instructions and required access permissions.
  • Always update software whenever a new version is available. Security patches are usually included with each new version, as manufacturers are doing their best to patch vulnerabilities.
  • Use available security measures such as VPNs. Any device that connects to the Internet should have a firewall and a VPN. Some providers, like NordVPN, have built-in smart TV apps, that will secure your TV and provide you with other benefits, such as geo-unblocking.
  • Download from official stores and reputable providers. Make sure you download apps from a secure source, and that both the app and its provider are reliable. Security software can block known apps and websites that contain malware, but new ones are popping up quickly.
  • Be careful with personal files and financial data. Shopping online on a big smart TV screen might sound fun but be careful providing your credit card details and other sensitive information this way. Do not keep personal documents on a TV.
  • Be educated and aware of the threats. Educate yourself and read about potential threats online. What is even more important, help your family members to understand what personal data and online privacy are. Share news about identity thefts and hacks with them, especially your kids.
  • Cover the camera of your smart TV. You must have seen pictures of Mark Zuckerberg’s computer with a covered webcam. If he does that, you should as well. If not, never do anything in front of your TV that you wouldn’t want to be broadcast. Webcams are easily hacked, and so are smart TV cameras.

Consumer Reports earlier this year exposed vulnerabilities in popular brand Smart TVs, saying “millions of smart TVs can be controlled by hackers exploiting easy-to-find security flaws. The problems affect Samsung televisions, along with models made by TCL and other brands that use the Roku TV smart-TV platform, as well as streaming devices such as the Roku Ultra.”

They found that “a relatively unsophisticated hacker could change channels, play offensive content, or crank up the volume, which might be deeply unsettling to someone who didn’t understand what was happening. This could be done over the web, from thousands of miles away.”

And while they reported that these vulnerabilities would not allow a hacker to spy on the user or steal information, given that cybercriminals spent $1 trillion to steal information, while enterprises, governments and manufacturers spent less than $100 billion last year according to Gartner, we agree it will only be a matter of time before we learn of more widespread attacks with sophisticated software.

Whether you’re binge watching, shopping, co-browsing, or doing a google search on your Smart TV, bear in mind you’re interacting with another computer which may not have the same security protections built in as your laptop or smartphone.

Arti Loftus is an experienced Information Technology specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the research, writing, and editing industry with many published articles under her belt.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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