News Story

Bill Extends Criminal Sanctions To Eavesdropping Via Siri, Alexa, Smart TVs

Law’s definitions of eavesdropping, surveillance, secret records date from 1966

State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, has introduced Senate Bill 688 to update Michigan laws that prohibit eavesdropping, surveilling or secretly recording another person, so that the law can accommodate advances in technology.

“Our eavesdropping laws are outdated and refer to older forms of communications, such as listening in on telephone conversations and bugging people’s homes and places of business,” Runestad said in a press release from his office on Dec. 26, 2019. “But today, routine electronic purchases like smart TVs and other home products have the potential to record our daily conversations in the interest of convenience and greater customer service.”

Runestad’s legislation would change the definitions of key words in current Michigan laws to cover the technologies that average citizens are surrounded by in today’s world.

The current definitions go back to 1966, and the lawmakers who wrote them could not have conceived of a time when citizens would have a Siri in their pocket, an Alexa on their dresser, and a so-called smart television that could potentially record and film everything that happens in their living room.

“Consumers are slowly becoming aware of the danger of private conversations being recorded by their electronic purchases. The law needs to catch up to this changing technological environment,” the senator said in the release.

For example, the current Michigan law defines surveillance as secretly observing the activities of another person for the purpose of spying upon and invading the privacy of the person observed.

SB 688 would add the words “whether by physical or technological means, in a present or future time, whether or not the individual is aware of the presence of a device or the capabilities of that device to record, store a recording, or be remotely accessed.”

The change would extend the law’s criminal penalties to those who would use new technology for nefarious purposes.

Other proposed changes include adding language making it clear that remotely accessing a device is an invasion of privacy, regardless of whether the individual who has the device is aware of that it could potentially be used for surveillance.

“We should not be afraid that our smart TVs and other technologies are actively recording our day-to-day lives,” Runestad said. “Updating the law will protect against these type of privacy invasions — especially in the comfort of our own homes.”

SB 688 was introduced about a month after the Portland, Oregon, FBI field office issued a warning to consumers about hackers using smart TVs as a gateway to enter their homes.

The FBI warned that even if a personal computer is properly secured, hackers might be able to create a back door through a household’s router via a smart TV.