Is Your Smart TV Spying On You?
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.
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
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 23 Nov 2015
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