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Your Smart TV Could Be Tracking Everything You Watch

In the latest privacy-related revelation, the New York Times is reporting that some smart TVs from major brands—including Philips, Sharp, Sony, and TCL—are now tracking everything you watch thanks to a service called Samba Interactive TV. The Samba TV software urges viewers to enable the service, promising to recommend shows and provide special offers, without explaining what information it collects to make those recommendations. Even when you don’t use the smart features of those TVs, the Samba TV software scans what’s on your screen to figure out what you’re viewing—including programs on Netflix and video games. If you have a Samba TV-enabled set, you might want to disable the service. Or disconnect the TV from the Internet entirely and use an Apple TV instead.

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Comments About Your Smart TV Could Be Tracking Everything You Watch

Notable Replies

  1. Yup but only if connected to the internet. I use a Mac with a Superdrive instead of Apple TV though so I can watch DVDs.

  2. Thanks for alerting us to this insidious “feature”. It makes you wonder what other spying software is embedded in Smart TVs.
    As it happens I have been using an Apple TV connected to a projector for many years and don’t plan to change this.

  3. I’ve always assumed that our Dish DVR is reporting back what shows I record, and probably which ones I watch and which ones I delete unwatched.

  4. Your Apple TV isn’t tracking you for advertising services. But if you’ve got a cable or satellite provider, the box reports on everything that’s being, or has been, watched. Knows what you stream, and what you’vewhat you’ve DVRed. They are the distributors of content, and they know what they are distributing, and where and when.

    There’s a good overview about addressable, programmatic, OTT, etc. TV here:

    http://freewheel.tv/freewheel-views/advanced-tv-and-the-opportunity-ahead/

    Anyone who thinks they aren’t being tracked because they cut their cords with Sling is wrong too; Dish TV bought it years ago.

    https://www.broadcastingcable.com/news/vidweek-addressable-programmatic-ads-drive-sling-sales-166506

    Apple has been like manna from heaven to the entertainment and distribution industries, first with Macs, then most especially in mobile with iPod and iTunes, iPhones and iPads. Apple just cut a deal with Charter/Spectrum that will allow TV to replace cable boxes, and they are negotiating deals with other distributors . Privacy could be big selling point for Apple TV…they won’t be a second party, like Amazon or Roku, that sells your info to a third party.

  5. I don’t understand what that means, the Apple TV doesn’t have a coaxial cable port, only an Ethernet port. Is the only device with a coaxial port going to be a cable modem, with all the TV coming over ip? Why would I want to pay cable prices for channels while living with the lesser quality and reliability of over-the-Internet delivery? I’ve seen the news that many Internet-only TV channel services have raised their monthly prices a bit but if I decided I could no longer live without access to “basic cable” style channels, they still look like a better deal than my cable provider’s offering.

  6. I’ve always been curious if and how the system reports “live” TV. If I deliberately record something and watch it later, I’m sure that gets tracked, but how can it tell if I’m actively watching live TV or the box is simply tuned to a channel I’m not watching?

    For instance, I will often turn on my TV and the live channel it just happens to be on is showing something I abhor (like basketball). I’ll promptly switch away to a different channel or something I’ve recorded, but later under “suggestions” I will sometimes see DTV recommending dumb sports talk shows or show types I’ve never watched in my life.

    If it’s reporting I’m watching things I’m not, then that’s tons of false information they’re gathering, which seems dumb to me. (What good is the info if it’s not accurate?)

    Unlike Tivo, which I miss dearly, DTV’s DVR won’t stay on pause for long. If I leave it paused on a recorded show it will switch back to live TV after a few hours (Tivo, back in the day, would stay paused for weeks at a time). It makes me wonder if they get $ for info and they want me to be “watching” live TV (even though I’m not actually watching that live TV).

  7. Lesser quality via the Internet? I recently compared the quality of an episode of a show on HBO between the cable version and the Internet stream (HBOGO). I have all phases of signal transmission within my house set to ‘native’ so the only conversion that happens is ‘upconversion (from 720p or 1080i)’ to 1080p at the TV. It was clear that the Internet streaming image showed detail that was washed out on the cable version.

    Although the cable portion of the coax bandwidth may be higher than the Internet portion (everything is coming in via the same cable into my house), at any given time the Internet stream is only streaming a few (in my case one) video streams compared to the cable provider streaming several 100 into the cable TV side. Indeed, many cable operators are talking about switching to an IPTV set up to fix this. Unfortunately, that may be the doom of TiVo.

  8. xdev
    Marc Z

        July 11
    

    I’ve always been curious if and how the system reports “live” TV. If I deliberately record something and watch it later, I’m sure that gets tracked, but how can it tell if I’m actively watching live TV or the box is simply tuned to a channel I’m not watching?

    They can tell if your box is on or not, and they can tell if you pause or rewind a program. The second you turn on, or switch to, a channel, they are serving information to your TV. If your ISP is also your cable, satellite or FIOS provider, they know a lot more about you and your household.

    What I think is especially scary is that TVs with smart technology built in can sell data directly to third parties, like Facebook did with Cambridge Analytica.

    For instance, I will often turn on my TV and the live channel it just happens to be on is showing something I abhor (like basketball). I’ll promptly switch away to a different channel or something I’ve recorded, but later under “suggestions” I will sometimes see DTV recommending dumb sports talk shows or show types I’ve never watched in my life.

    They aren’t that smart… yet. But they are learning more and more about their audiences all the time and refining algorithms. And TVs with smart technology built in can track even more about you than your cable, FIOS or satellite box can. Visio got into big trouble about this last year:

    https://www.theverge.com/2017/2/7/14527360/vizio-smart-tv-tracking-settlement-disable-settings

    If it’s reporting I’m watching things I’m not, then that’s tons of false information they’re gathering, which seems dumb to me. (What good is the info if it’s not accurate?)

    The vast bulk of their revenue comes from selling advertising. They are more concerned about your demographic, psychographic and geolocation information than they are about what programming you like or dislike; their primary focus is on serving precisely targeted ads. The more precise the targeting is, the more they earn.

    On the other hand, subscription services that are not dependent on advertising, like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and in the not too distant future, I suspect a TV content and Texture publication bundle mixed in with Apple Music. The ad free, or limited, services are focused on determining what you content you might like. They target their efforts on recommending and curating content that you would like because Apple wants to sell you expensive devices, Amazon wants your loyalty so you will buy all your stuff from them, and Netflix wants your subscriptions. People pay for subscription services because there are no ads.

    Unlike Tivo, which I miss dearly, DTV’s DVR won’t stay on pause for long. If I leave it paused on a recorded show it will switch back to live TV after a few hours (Tivo, back in the day, would stay paused for weeks at a time). It makes me wonder if they get $ for info and they want me to be “watching” live TV (even though I’m not actually watching that live TV).

    As long as your box is receiving data, they can count you into their audience numbers. If your DVR is paused, you’re not time shifting and they can’t serve ads to you.

    And they can’t serve ads to you if you’re watching Netflix, which is becoming more and more of a threat to advertising dependent channels. Although Netflix is neither participating in or subscribing to the survey, Nielsen has begun measuring it:

    https://deadline.com/2017/10/nielsen-svod-ratings-disney-abc-nbcu-ae-and-five-others-1202190167/

  9. Well, if that is true, then they must be bored with what I watch: 30 minutes of local news and 30 minutes of national news all watched in 45 minutes because I fast-forward through the commercials. During the TV “season” (Sep/Oct through May) I watch maybe 4 - 5 first-run shows per week, less in Nov - Jan due to mainly reruns being aired. Oh, I also FF through the commercials on those shows also.

  10. Sounds like you only subscribe to basic network fair. Cable and Streaming services have had some first rate series on in the Summer for the past two or three years. Some honored on this year’s Emmy list.

    -Al-

  11. Let’s move along. Nothing to see here. Old news.

    But I don’t trust TV manufacturers at all. They are operating on razor thin margins and I suspect the only profits they get are based on pre-loading all of those internet services into the TV.

    So when I get a new TV I plug it into the internet, let it do it’s firmware update, then plug it back in every 3 to 9 months to check for any updates. Other than that it gets it signals in my households from Tivo, AppleTV, Blu-Ray, etc…

  12. Well, if that is true, then they must be bored with what I watch: 30 minutes of local news and 30 minutes of national news all watched in 45 minutes because I fast-forward through the commercials.

    Bored??? NO WAY!!! You’re still seeing fragments on either side of a commercial pod, and you’re within the range of a desirable audience of time shifters. Your provider is thrilled not just to cash your monthly bill, but to collect data so they collect money from all the ads they serve in your stream. Because you’re time shifting news, you fit in to Nielsen’s Live-Plus-3 or Live-Plus-7 segment, but probably not in their new Live-Plus-35:

    https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/introducing-live-35-day-ratings-898530

    People who regularly watch news programming are especially desirable to consumer and OTC and DTC pharmaceuticals and drugs, insurance (personal, health, auto), investments, cars, travel, health and fitness, and lots more. And in the US, there is an especially contentious election cycle looming, and advertising dollars are pouring in to party and special interest groups on the national and local levels. People who watch news shows are the #1 primary targets here, and the news media is thriving.

    During the TV “season” (Sep/Oct through May) I watch maybe 4 - 5 first-run shows per week, less in Nov - Jan due to mainly reruns being aired. Oh, I also FF through the commercials on those shows also.

    If your cable or satellite provider is also your ISP, they are combining your viewing preferences with what you do online to better target the ads you see on the internet.

  13. Nope, they’re separate. Plus I use ad blockers so I don’t see that may ads (other than Amazon).

  14. DirecTV’s Preferred Xtra package. Yes, there are a very few programs on the non-broadcast channels we watch such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” Oh, I bought an TV just to watch “The Grand Tour” on Amazon Prime. It also allowed me to see the restored “Yellow Submarine” since it isn’t coming to my area theaters.

    I have a good collection of LaserDiscs and DVDs (though they are packed pending a move) also.

    The vast majority of programs on the various steaming links aren’t to my taste.

  15. Curtis:

    The Apple TV has Ethernet and WiFi. Either one has more than enough
    bandwidth for the the picture and sound for one channel plus any device
    to device communications. Plus HDMI out to connect to the TV.

    Data compression is widely used with cable and satellite. So is IP. Most
    cable systems, AFAIK, are digital only these days. OTA is digital.

    Over the air channels use a lot more bandwidth than the same channels
    may be given on a cable system.

    Picture quality has many variables including all the bounces back and
    forth to orbit as signals are moved around plus whatever glitches may
    occur anywhere along cable to a viewer’s home.

    Some streaming shows are available in 4K which in theory should look
    better than 1080p or 720p via OTA or whatever cable/satellite provides.
    (I don’t have a 4K TV or source.)

    Few users will notice the difference as long as a reasonable level of
    quality is used. YouTube does allow content to be downloaded in various
    resolutions. For a fair comparison, watch at normal TV viewing distance
    rather than distance we often use to view computer screens.

    –Jim

  16. I know how video transmission works, over the Internet, air, and traditional cable. Call it mere semantics if you like but if the cable company’s cable that comes out of the wall isn’t directly connected to the box outputting the TV, it’s not a “cable box.” My question about quality is directly tied to reliability. The quality of the video streaming over the Internet can be affected by what others in your household, your neighborhood, or farther out, are doing on the Internet. That’s not the case for traditional cable TV (or over the air broadcast for that matter). There’s a current Verizon FIOS commercial, where the Stranger Things kid is babysitting and the kids eat the paper with the WiFi password so he can’t use it and interrupt their streaming video, that essentially offers to overprovision bandwidth in the home to avoid contention.

    I think the more important question I posed was why would one choose their cable company, which everyone hates, as an over-the-top TV provider instead of the many alternatives (Sling, YouTube TV, Playstation Vue, etc.)?

  17. Almost all cable TV these days is done via IP. Even the dedicated channels going directly into a cable box. The difference between that IP and your Internet IP is the one for the cable TV channels is given priority to the extent it is rarely impacted by traffic in the neighborhood or area. This is a big part of the fight over data caps and preferred services.

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