[BUSTED] Vizio is Watching What YOU are Watching

Category: Television

Vizio, the second-largest seller of smart TVs, recently agreed to pay $20 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission complaint alleging the company sold the TV viewing habits data of individually identifiable customers to third-party data broker and advertisers without the customers’ informed consent. Here is what you need to know, even if you don’t own a Vizio smart TV…

What is Vizio's "Smart Interactivity"?

According to the FTC’s announcement of the settlement, “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 was done without giving customers adequate notice or opportunity to opt-out of data collection.

Vizio’s data arm, Inscape, added other data such as the customer’s household IP address and demographics such as sex, age and income ranges, etc., which the company collected itself or purchased from data brokers. This enhanced dataset was then sold to advertisers and data brokers.

Although Vizio did not sell customers’ names, the data it did sell is more than sufficient to enable identification of individual buyers of Vizio smart TVs with a high degree of accuracy. Including the customer’s household IP address also enabled advertisers to “follow” the customer from one device to another, because many of one’s mobile devices also use that household IP address.

IMG

When you visit a Web site, it can log your IP address. If you fill out a form, that data can be associated with your IP address. Many such forms request your name, address, phone number, email address, age, occupation, marital status, interests, and more. That data finds its way into the hands of data brokers, who buy and sell mass quantities of such records. Experian, for instance offers marketers several hundred attributes tied to an IP address. (Not all attributes are available for every IP address.)

The Smart Interactivity feature is enabled by default on some Vizio smart TVs. It has been added to other TVs via remote software updates, with only a cryptic notice that does not mention all of this data collection. Since the FTC began its investigation in March, 2016, the Vizio update notice has been changed to tell consumers that data is being collected and where they can learn how to disable Smart Interactivity. https://www.vizio.com/viewingdata The short story is:

  • Press the “Menu” button on your remote or open the HDTV Settings app
  • Navigate to “system,” then select “Reset & Admin”
  • After highlighting “Smart Interactivity,” press the right-arrow and change the setting to “Off”

Pay Up and Clean Up

The “Smart Interactivity” feature on Vizio TVs that collects data about your viewing habits and devices is enabled by default. It can be turned off simply enough but Vizio should have made it opt-in rather than opt-out. Vizio competitors Samsung and LG have a similar feature in their TV sets but viewers must opt-in during setup to enable it.

In addition to the $20 million fine, the settlement requires Vizio to delete all data that it has acquired through the Smart Interactivity feature since March 2016, and “prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent for its data collection and sharing practices.”

Vizio is not the only company that is collecting data on its customers, of course. Other TV makers, including Samsung and LG, have “smart” features in their sets, too. But customers must consciously enable these features during setup, and they don’t collect nearly as much data as Vizio does. Other “Internet of Things” devices, from TVs to coffee pots, may be sending data about your household habits to vendors who re-sell it. Streaming services such as Netflix also collect data on consumers’ viewing habits.

It’s significant that the FTC now classifies TV viewing habits as “sensitive information,” the same category assigned to Social Security Numbers, information about children and precise geolocation information. The FTC has long pressed vendors to give consumers meaningful opportunities to opt out of collection of sensitive data.

The whistle was first blown on Vizio by the non-profit public interest group ProPublica back in November, 2015. I wrote, Is Your TV Spying On You? in the same month. At the time, Vizio claimed that the law was on their side. Fortunately, their argument did not prevail. While it took 16 months, the FTC has effectively squelched this invasion of privacy.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "[BUSTED] Vizio is Watching What YOU are Watching"

Posted by:

john silberman
09 Feb 2017

I still remember when people told me I was paranoid when I expressed my concern of TV manufactures spying on their customers when smart TVs first came out.


Posted by:

Reg
09 Feb 2017

Vizio's and similar behavior is reprehensible. The penalties should be much more severs. Vizio should have been required to delete any and all such illegally collected information not just since March, 2016. This data is now available to anyone who can legally or illegally obtain access including sexual predators. We all know how secure (not!} these companies data systems are.


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
09 Feb 2017

In today's world ... Anything for a buck!!! I don't have any Smart TVs in my house, but I do have a NeoTV and a Blue-Ray Disc player. I am afraid that both of them are doing the same thing. They both have Smart programs connected to them or I should say, I can use the programs like Netflix, Hulu and so on with either one.

Now, I don't use both of them all of the time, but enough time throughout the month for damage to be done. I use Vudu. I have movies that I have bought and have uploaded them to my Ultra-Violet Cloud. This way I don't have to use my movie discs to see what I want to see. I guess Vudu may fall into this, as well.


Posted by:

Lawrence McDonald
09 Feb 2017

What about wireless Bluetooth speakers that connect to your computer ? Can they collect info ?


Posted by:

chuck
09 Feb 2017

I have a Vizio smart TV. I have posted on here before that I thought a smart TV was a waste of money. My TIVO OTA does every thing the smart part of the TV does. (I'm sure TIVO is collecting also) Looks like I have another reason not to buy another smart TV again. Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they not watching, listening, and collecting data. Privacy? What is that?


Posted by:

Heidi
09 Feb 2017

Thanks so much for the heads up. My problem...I cannot highlight Smart Interactivity. Any suggestions?


Posted by:

Lori
09 Feb 2017

My thought is, "Who receives the 20 mil?"


Posted by:

Daniel Johnson
09 Feb 2017

My question is same as Lori's, who gets the money ?, I have 3 vizio flat screens


Posted by:

Jay R
09 Feb 2017

I glad I broke the TV habit at the turn of the century. Not having one keeps me from being spied on, doesn't it? Well? Oh, the smart phone? My other web activities. Nevermind.

And, Lori. Let me know if you find out!


Posted by:

wts
09 Feb 2017

With the proposed changes at the FTC by the new administration, can we count on a similar level of consumer protection in the future? Or will the FTC bend more to corporate interests when it conflicts with customer privacy, let alone other issues such as the creation of monopolies, etc.?


Posted by:

mabob
09 Feb 2017

the government gets 20 million and we the victims get nothing from these companies. Maybe it would be a good idea for individuals to file a suit against these companies. Our private information was stolen by them. What can we do? Apparently Nothing! Where is the customer's compensation!


Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
09 Feb 2017

We have a 2-year-old Vizio TV which recently updated itself automatically, and displayed the message about Smart Interactivity. Fortunately I was aware of what this really meant, from past Rankin articles and other sources, so I followed the on-screen instructions to make sure that function was turned off. At least Vizio is now warning its customers, even though the bland description will induce a lot of people to turn it on.


Posted by:

SamG
09 Feb 2017

You think Comcast, Dish, and Directv are gathering date? ISPs? Windows OS back doors? Routers? My Roku? AAAAAAAAHH.
Privacy be damned!


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