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What to Know About Smart TVs and Your Privacy

Most new TVs on the market are so-called “smart TVs,” which incorporate software platforms that can run apps like Netflix without requiring an external device like an Apple TV. These network-connected smart TVs offer some convenience — it’s handy having a Netflix button on your TV remote. But with such network-enabled capabilities come the inevitable privacy concerns.

TV maker Vizio recently agreed to a $3.7 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over its data-gathering practices. Vizio has also agreed to “stop unauthorized tracking, to prominently disclose its TV viewing collection practices, and to get consumers’ express consent before collecting and sharing viewing information.”

The fact that Vizio was tracking its customers was nothing new, but the scope of that tracking may surprise you:

Starting in 2014, Vizio made TVs that automatically tracked what consumers were watching and transmitted that data back to its servers. Vizio even retrofitted older models by installing its tracking software remotely. All of this, the FTC and AG allege, was done without clearly telling consumers or getting their consent.

What did Vizio know about what was going on in the privacy of consumers’ homes? On a second-by-second basis, Vizio collected a selection of pixels on the screen that it matched to a database of TV, movie, and commercial content. What’s more, Vizio identified viewing data from cable or broadband service providers, set-top boxes, streaming devices, DVD players, and over-the-air broadcasts. Add it all up and Vizio captured as many as 100 billion data points each day from millions of TVs.

Vizio then turned that mountain of data into cash by selling consumers’ viewing histories to advertisers and others. And let’s be clear: We’re not talking about summary information about national viewing trends. According to the complaint, Vizio got personal. The company provided consumers’ IP addresses to data aggregators, who then matched the address with an individual consumer or household. Vizio’s contracts with third parties prohibited the re-identification of consumers and households by name, but allowed a host of other personal details – for example, sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education, and home ownership. And Vizio permitted these companies to track and target its consumers across devices.

Vizio isn’t alone. Our TidBITS Talk discussion list batted around a two-year-old story about Samsung warning customers to not discuss sensitive information in front of their TVs because the conversation could be recorded and sent to a third party.

Is this Orwell’s 1984, in which Big Brother installs TV sets in every home to spy on the populace? No, but it’s closer than may be comfortable.

First, no one is forcing these TV sets on consumers. There are still some “dumb TVs” on store shelves, though they’re in the minority. Second, a certain amount of viewer tracking isn’t necessarily bad. Netflix, for instance, picks which shows to license for streaming based on viewer metrics. However, some other companies, like Vizio, are gathering far more user data than just viewing habits, and they’re not using that data for viewer benefit, but instead selling access to the data to generate additional profits.

One might argue that selling access to viewer data, as Vizio did, helped keep TV prices low. But TV prices were pretty low already, and, in any case, the FTC doesn’t seem to agree with that reasoning.

If you already own a smart TV and are concerned by these patterns, you could take the Ron Swanson approach and toss it in the dumpster, but that’s not necessary.

For a simpler solution, just don’t connect your TV to the Internet. If you want to use Netflix and other apps, get an Apple TV, which has the best privacy policy in the business (as well as — shameless plug — the best independent manual in the business, my “Take Control of Apple TV”).

If you would still like to take advantage of your TV’s apps without sacrificing privacy, Jake Swearingen of New York Magazine has compiled an outstanding guide to maximizing privacy on the most popular TV platforms. His guide notes that Vizio TV sets going forward will have their “Smart Interactivity” feature turned off by default. Given the size of the FTC settlement, I imagine that most other manufacturers will take similar steps.

Bear in mind that it’s not just smart TVs that could be listening in. If you own an Amazon Echo or a Google Home, you have an always-on listening device in your house. And if you have Hey Siri enabled on your iOS devices, they could also listen in. (On iOS devices you can prevent such behavior: go to Settings > Siri and disable Allow “Hey Siri”.)

This isn’t merely hypothetical. Law enforcement officials are trying to compel Amazon to hand over recordings from an Amazon Echo for evidence in a murder case. In yet another installment of “The Future Is Weird,” Amazon is trying to protect customer data against the government by arguing that Alexa, the AI assistant that powers the Echo, has First Amendment protections.

For that matter, you can assume that any networked device with a camera and/or microphone could, at least in theory, be used to spy on you. Don’t feel paranoid if you have an urge to slap tape over your webcam — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does the same thing. (Despite Facebook’s ravening desire to know ever more about its users and byzantine privacy controls, Zuckerberg seems to take his own privacy very seriously.)

We live in interesting times, times in which privacy-conscious people need to be extra vigilant. However, by taking a few simple precautions, you can maintain some level of control over how much data you share.

 

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Donald Crawford  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-02-27 23:59
I have a smart Sony TV and just go into the TV settings and turn of the WiFi connection. This is done after the TV software is updated. I do not like the Android TV part of my TV, and only use Cable, Blu-Ray player, and Apple TV inputs.
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tom powers  2017-02-28 10:30
I have three Samsung TVs, two of which have Ethernet connections and power up with a SmatTV splash screen. I have connected neither of these to the Ethernet, but that's probably irrelevant, because I have Verizon FiOS on all three. Who needs a spying TV when most of us with triple play broadband (fiber or cable) are already giving away our connectivity choices?

I was appalled (naively?) when I heard reports based on the first TiVo boxes about what were the most viewed commercials on the Superbowl. Not as bad as the Vizio example in the article (active as opposed to passive eavesdropping), but a surprise to me, used to old cable systems that had no backchannel.
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