Seoul: For a company that has been mired in negative headlines for months, just about the last thing Samsung Electronics Co. needed was news its smart TVs could be used to spy on users.
According to documents released by WikiLeaks, that is exactly what the Central Intelligence Agency did with a programme called Weeping Angel. In essence, it uses a television’s microphone, a feature designed to allow voice commands, to pick up and transmit information while the device appears to be switched off.
While Samsung wasn’t the only company named in the WikiLeaks documents—Apple Inc. and Google also got a mention—it’s still a problem for the South Korean giant. The maker of Galaxy smartphones has been struggling to recover from the debacle of exploding Note 7 smartphones that have cost it billions of dollars while heir apparent Jay Y. Lee is set to stand trial on charges of bribery and embezzlement in an influence-peddling scandal. The trial starts on Thursday.
“This can’t be good, with some damage already done to its global profile recently,” said Hwang Jang-sun, a professor who specializes in communications at Seoul’s Chung-Ang University. “Consumers could feel they are risking their personal security when they consider buying Samsung TVs. What matters ultimately though is whether Samsung was aware or not and blame could shift depending on future findings.”
Samsung said was aware of the WikiLeaks report and is urgently looking into the matter. “Protecting consumers’ privacy and the security of our devices is a top priority at Samsung,” the company said in an email. The company and Lee have previously denied wrongdoing in the graft case.
The attack against Samsung TVs was developed in cooperation with the UK intelligence agencies MI5 and BTSS, turning the device into a listening bug that uses its internet connection to record and transmit information to a CIA server, WikiLeaks said in a statement.
According to WikiLeaks, CIA hackers developed tools to break into Apple iPhones, phones based on Google’s Android system and Samsung smart TVs to monitor conversations and messages. The website, which specializes in disclosing government secrets, posted 8,761 documents it said came from the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence.
CIA spokesman Jonathan Liu wrote in an email: “We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents.”
“At first glance it is probably legit or contains a lot of legitimate stuff, which means somebody managed to extract a lot of data from a classified CIA system and is willing to let the world know that,” Nicholas Weaver, a senior researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, said in an email.
In 2015, Samsung faced a backlash when it was revealed that its web-connected TVs could transmit data to third parties when users activated its voice-recognition function. While Samsung said customers could turn the feature off at any time, the controversy resulted into claims the TVs could eavesdrop on conversations.
Samsung killed off the Note 7 last year after the devices kept catching fire, even after an initial recall was supposed to have fixed the problem. The company later blamed irregularly designed batteries that led to overheating.
“Anything connected to the Internet for downloads and updates is vulnerable to hacking, whether it be smart TVs or phones,” said Lee Sung-jin, a professor of cyber security at South Korea’s Baekseok University. “There are various ways infection can happen, whether it’s by attacking the product itself or by infiltrating personal computers used by developers themselves.”