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Freaked out by the FBI’s smart TV warning? Here’s what you should do

On November 26, the FBI’s Portland, Oregon, office issued a warning about the security risks associated with buying a smart TV. The timing was no doubt meant to offer up some helpful advice right before the American public entered its annual TV buying spree for Black Friday/Cyber Monday. Ironically, the warning wasn’t picked up by many news outlets when it was originally issued, which means some consumers may be looking at their new purchases and wondering if they’ve made a terrible mistake.

At first glance, the concern seems warranted. The FBI warning uses some pretty scary language to describe the potential risk:

Hackers can also take control of your unsecured TV. At the low end of the risk spectrum, they can change channels, play with the volume, and show your kids inappropriate videos. In a worst-case scenario, they can turn on your bedroom TV’s camera and microphone and silently cyberstalk you. — FBI Warning

But before you go rushing to read the fine print of your retailer’s return policy, take a breath. Despite the dire nature of the FBI’s warning, your actual risks are probably quite low.

Digital Trends recently explored the security risks associated with owning a smart TV, in light of a social media tweet put out by Samsung advising people to update their TV’s anti-virus software — something many had no idea their TV even possessed. What we discovered was that if you buy a smart TV from a reputable brand, and keep its software up-to-date, you can minimize the chances that your TV will become a backdoor through which hackers dismantle your digital life.

Not that we want to dismiss the FBI’s concerns out of hand. Security weaknesses in hardware and software have a bad habit of going undetected for very long periods of time, often giving bad actors plenty of opportunities to exploit them. However, unlike the frequent reports we’ve seen of online services being hacked — Disney+ is a recent and prominent example — reports of successful attacks on smart TVs are a rarity.

So, no, we don’t think you should worry too much about returning your shiny new smart TV — after all, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any TV these days that isn’t loaded with some smart tech. But if you’re still feeling uneasy, here are some tips on smart TV best practices:

  • Read and make sure you understand your smart TV’s various user agreements. If there’s an auto-update feature for its firmware, turn it on. If there isn’t, check for updates monthly.
  • Consider buying a new TV when and if software updates stop coming.
  • If your TV happens to have a camera (which, contrary to the FBI’s report, very few new models do), consider using a physical cover in front of the lens when it’s not in use.
  • Security isn’t the only concern with smart TVs — a lesser-known risk is activity tracking privacy.

However, a bigger risk to your overall cybersecurity is your home network. Make sure that:

  • Your Wi-Fi router uses strong security and always set your own password instead of relying on the factory settings.
  • Keep that router up-to-date with the latest firmware. If it has been a long time since a firmware update was issued, consider buying a new router from a reputable brand.

Finally, you always have the option of disabling your smart TV’s internet connection entirely by unplugging it from your Ethernet cable or turning off its Wi-Fi connection. Doing so will turn it into just a regular TV, but given how cheap third-party media streaming devices like Roku and Amazon Fire TV are, you can add that smart TV functionality back in a product that might have better security.

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like…
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