[BUSTED] Vizio is Watching What YOU are Watching
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.
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
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 9 Feb 2017
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