Is Your Smart TV Spying On You?

Category: Privacy , Television

Smart TVs promise to enhance your viewing experience by connecting your television to the Internet. Streaming video, easier program searches, and interactive features sound great. But what if your TV is watching you? Read on to learn if your new-fangled TV is up to something sneaky...

Who's Watching You When You're Watching TV?

Vizio is known for selling quality TVs at low prices. But according to a recent report, Vizio boosts its profits by surreptitiously collecting data on customers’ viewing habits and IP addresses, and bundling that data with other data purchased from commercial data brokers.

ProPublica says the resulting “enhanced data” is sold to advertisers so they can target customers not only on Vizio TVs but on other devices they may own. Here is how Vizio’s “Smart Interactivity” feature works, and how to disable it.

Broadcast TV program signals include data used by TV sets to display schedules and program descriptions; this data enables the grid of channels and time slots from which you can select a program to watch. On-demand programming, such as Netflix, does not need or include schedule data. It’s only the broadcast programs that Smart Interactivity is able to track.

Smart TV Watching You?

The IP address of your home network is also collected by the Smart Interactivity feature. So is data concerning every device connected to your network, from the TV to tablets and smartphones and even printers. The device data gathered is as detailed as possible, right down to MAC addresses and serial numbers that uniquely identify each device.

Strictly speaking, none of the data that Vizio collects is “personal identifiable information” that enables Vizio to deduce, for example, “Joe Brown at 123 Maple Ave in Hoboken NJ was watching ‘Game of Thrones’ last Sunday.” But when Vizio buys more data from data brokers such as Experian, that network IP address can be the key to revealing who you are as well as all the devices by which ads can reach you.

Putting the Pieces Together

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.

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.)

Vizio combines the data it collects through its TV sets with data purchased from brokers to create a very valuable profile of the customer associated with a given IP address. Not only does an advertiser learn who you are, what you like, and what “wealth indicators” you may have, it also learns what other devices you use so it can target ads to your phone, tablet, or computer.

ProPublica broke this story on November 9, 2015. Already, two class-action lawsuits have been filed against Vizio. The main allegation in both is that Vizio has violated the Video Privacy Protection Act, a 1980s federal law that prohibits any “video tape service provider” from selling records of what its customers have purchased or rented in a form that enables identification of individual customers.

"Not Our Problem..."

Vizio doesn't deny any of these allegations. But the company says it’s not a “video tape service provider” so the law doesn’t apply to it. Apparently, Vizio plans to continue pushing the envelope of customer privacy as hard as it can. Consumers will have to push back by a) boycotting Vizio products, or b) disabling Smart Interactivity in products they already own.

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.

Profit margins are razor-thin in consumer electronics. We can expect OEMs to go after every nickel they can get from advertisers and other marketers. So every new “interactive” feature should be viewed with suspicion.

Do you have a Smart TV? Are you concerned about the privacy implications? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Your Smart TV Spying On You?"

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

Laws will never keep up with technology. Especially a law that was passed in the 80's. The best defense is a good offense. Just disable all the "Smart" features and you will be safe. I am sure there will come a time when I have no alternatives but for now I refuse to buy a "smart" tv. I hired a security firm to review my home internet and device setups and was told that if my "smart" tv has a video camera, some enterprising person could theoretically hack my wireless signal and watch the house via the camera on the tv assuming I had not disabled the camera. Anyway, I figure that unless I really need the features, I will not buy the device.

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

Have an LG Smart TV, yes the feature did come up during setup, I choose not to enable. I figure there is enough information with my fingerprint or IP address already on it. But it is getting harder to keep it all out, just best to sometimes turn it off and read a book, paper book.

Posted by:

John Robertson
24 Nov 2015

I purchased one of the first "smart" tvs, a Panasonic Viera,should I be concerned about Panasonic datamining?

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

No smart TV here, yet! I don't know how secure any smart TV is, even those that supposedly have the smart feature turned off.

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

I watch TV on an old analog set.

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

Correct me if I'm wrong, Bob, but I don't think Vizio gets much marketable information out of me. I use one of their TVs as a monitor for my PC and game console.

And it's their own fault--the cheap remote they furnished was not made to control smart TV apps with anything resembling ease. So, Amazon, YouTube and Netflix run through my Playstation 3, and I use my PC as a DVR--with Media Player Classic, PowerDVD or VLC handling the playback.

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

WHOA!!! Maybe, that is why they are called Smart TVs?!

Thankfully, none of my current TVs are Smart TVs. I do have a Netgear Media Stream Player, but, I am not really sure, if, MSPs do the same thing. Plus, you really have to connect it up, meaning, find the right HDMI on your TV, to activate it. I don't use it often, because, I rarely see my VUDU movies on the TV, I watch them on my PC Monitor.

It seems as though, new technology is helping the "bad guys", to get what they want and to the hell, with the customer. The "bad guys" in this case, are the Data Brokers and the TV companies that sells the information to them!!!

This isn't hacking, but, it is pretty darn close to it. However, we've had the selling of information from Telephone Companies. You really think your Unlisted Phone number is safe? Nope, telephone numbers have been sold as lists, for decades. These lists have included Unlisted Phone numbers.

Now, I wonder if, the Telephone and Cable Companies are selling customers IP addresses, too??? Bad thoughts, on that topic.

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

Added to that, interactive Smart TVs have a microphone that ‘listens’ to spoken commands you can give the device. It’s doesn’t take too much imagination to foresee people hacking that feature to listen in to what’s being said for a longer time. It must be a security service’s wet dream to have such a readymade spying device.

Posted by:

Charles Eldredge
24 Nov 2015

I have a large hdtv but I always go for the least expensive technology. That has kept smart tv's out of my home so far. I just have my pc hardwired to my no need for a smart tv anyway. I get all the internet benefits without the high cost. And now, thanks to Bob, I probably won't ever be buying a smart tv. Besides, the way I look at it, if anyone is selling my data they owe me money.

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

1) It would be remarkably interesting to see the demographics of your list and how they respond to something like this. I'm middle aged, and concerned about privacy. My experience with millenials tells me most would not have a problem with this-- they assume that everyone is mining their private data (except for their snapchat images-- haha).

2) I think there are more and more services that try to help people anonymize and/or privtize their data. Spoof your MAC address. Randomly rotate your public and private IP address. Use TOR. Etc.

I loved your article in Feb. It was an excellent overview of anonymous and privacy (plus their differences).

If you are more worried than the average person about data brokers connecting all the dots of your data, then privatize and anonymize all your devices, turn the smart services off on your TV, and relax. You haven't solved everything, but you are no longer easy prey. They would prefer the low hanging fruit of everyone else.

Posted by:

B Miller
24 Nov 2015

Two way technology in TVs and other devices is scary. Why do companies like MS or Google require access to the microphone, camera and modem just to use one of their many Apps? It is not a choice but a requirement one must agree to if you want to use the App.
There should be clear warning labels on devices like Smart TVs and phones about the Spyware/Malware that is installed in/on the devices. This is an invasion of privacy without a search warrant.

Posted by:

24 Nov 2015

I have a Vizio TV that I bought a few months ago. It's an M series smart TV that works great for my needs. You don't have to turn off all smart TV features just the Smart Interactivity. I knew about this when I bought the set and disabled it when I set it up. I'm also a cable cutter and don't watch any broadcast TV that this so called feature is supposed to work with.

Posted by:

25 Nov 2015

Never been a fan of Vizio's quality so I've never bought their products. I definetely won't buy their product now!

Posted by:

25 Nov 2015

Smart TV's are for Dumb people.
Its so easy to hook up to a computer or laptop that I wonder why anyone would want one? Oh wait ... I might have to hook up some wires ... like I said ... Smart TV's are for Dumb people.

Posted by:

30 Nov 2015

I quit watching most tv many moons ago when I learned how to read.

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