Best Buy's Wi-Fi Porn Headache

When a Best Buy store in South Carolina this week found itself dealing with the fallout from showing pornographic images on its large-screen TVs three times in 24 hours—one time the images were displayed to children in the store for a full 30 minutes—it forced the chain to wrestle with issues of Wi-Fi security, the problematic nature of wirelessly accessible smart TVs and how to control what images customers choose to use to test the TVs. And ever-changing explanations of the incident didn't help.

On February 11-12, customers at the Greenville location were shown pictures of two adults engaging in intercourse on one of the store's large-screen smart TVs, reportedly three times. Those images were placed there by at least two customers. That much is clear. How the images came to be placed there is unclear, as Best Buy itself has gone out of its way to be vague.

When the incident was first reported over the weekend, Best Buy issued a statement saying that "two individuals accessed our store's wireless signal to broadcast inappropriate content on a smart television display." A few days later, the statement Best Buy was sending to reporters was identically phrased, except that "accessed our store's wireless signal" changed to "accessed a product display wireless signal." Such a change could indicate shifting the fault from the store's public Wi-Fi or the store's LAN to the smart TV set itself, which does have the ability to receive images and other content directly from a consumer's mobile phone. So was that what happened?

Not necessarily. The Best Buy spokesperson who handled both statements, Kelly Groehler, said the first statement had been somewhat rushed. "The first statement was written quickly and in response to a television inquiry where we had minutes to respond, and I addressed wireless in our stores generically," Groehler wrote in an E-mail. "I have had the chance today to clarify, in order to be more technically accurate: One of the signals in our store wireless system, specifically the one for product displays, was accessed."

That suggests the access was inappropriate. But that may not have been the case. One customer who complained said he was told by Best Buy corporate that surveillance footage shows two individuals suspected in the incident. The customers were in the computer area of the store, in a specific area where the store encourages customers to post personal images to the large-screen displays to demo the sets' crisp screen resolution. "It was to connect customers' personal devices" to the network to be displayed on the screens, said Best Buy customer Miguel Berg, who witnessed the images in the store and discussed his conversations with Robert Feivor, identified as a Best Buy senior executive resolution specialist. (Berg shared E-mails between himself and Feivor with StorefrontBacktalk.) "They were inviting people to come in and select whatever they wanted on their device and show it on the big screen," Berg said.

Technically, that explanation is consistent with Groehler's description; the phrase "was accessed" doesn't necessarily mean the access was done without authorization.

This situation raises quite a few IT security issues. If the smart TVs were connecting directly with the consumers' mobile phones—which does not seem to be the case this time, given the Best Buy reference to "our store wireless system, specifically the one for product displays"—the issue would involve whether the store had changed the default password for the televisions. But that would have been academic, given that the store would have to post the password so customers could transmit images to the TV for the demo.

There does not appear to have been a breach of the store's wireless LAN.There does not appear to have been a breach of the store's wireless LAN. If these communications were riding over the store's customer Wi-Fi, password protection is not an issue. What does appear to be an issue is allowing customers to post images on publicly displayed devices.

When Wal-Mart this month described a plan for customers to communicate with each other and have those real-time conversations displayed on in-store big screens, an executive quickly added that the chain would be using various filters to try and keep the conversations inoffensive. But by its very nature, text is easier to software filter than images or videos.

Of potentially greater concern in this Best Buy situation is that store managers told Berg the pornographic incident he experienced late on February 12 was preceded by one that morning and another the night before. It's not at all clear if the two people suspected of being behind the third incident were involved in either of the first two. But the proximity of the incidents suggests that store management didn't have an immediate way of halting the porn displays. (Note to Best Buy marketing: That's one way to boost foot traffic and to differentiate in-store from online.)

Having employees review and approve any media before it's displayed on the TVs seems to be one easy—albeit labor-intensive and, therefore, expensive and disruptive—approach. That would have the downside of taking away the convenience and immediacy of letting customers instantly beam over a family portrait.

Although enabling customers to display their own images is a nice personalization touch, it hardly seems worth the risk. After all, it seems likely that Best Buy can demonstrate the clarity of screen displays with its own high-end images without risking offending anyone.

Berg said the incident he witnessed—along with his mother, his teenage son and an infant—was on a Panasonic television connected to a Sony Blu-ray player.

Best Buy's official response has been to apologize to all customers and to offer a $1,000 gift certificate to Berg and, presumably, other customers who complained. A police report was also filed. Greenville Police public information officer Alia Urps said on Tuesday (Feb. 21) that "the investigation is in its preliminary stage. It has been assigned to a detective, but right now there is no new information to offer concerning this incident."

What Best Buy has not said, though, is how it plans on preventing this from happening again, at any of its stores. To do that, though, the chain would first have to detail exactly how it happened—something the chain seems hesitant to do.

Berg, who said his family is still considering possible litigation against Best Buy, was just as upset by how Best Buy employees treated his family during the incident as the incident itself. A sales associate made light of the adult-themed image as it was being displayed and when Berg asked to speak to a senior manager, one associate told him, "You want to see the manager? You go get him. He's over there," Berg said.

Like so many other retail problems, training staff on how to deal with customers is a huge issue. Displaying adult-themed images to children is really bad. But having employees give victims of that situation a hard time? Now that's truly obscene.

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