Is Your Smart TV Spying On You? (yes, and here's how to stop it)

Category: Privacy , Television

Almost every television sold these days is advertised as a Smart TV. Behind the screen, these TVs are computers with an operating system, a hard drive, and Internet connectivity. They also have cameras, a microphone, and sophisticated software that allows them to collect and sell your viewing data. And because they are constantly connected, the same risks (malware and hacking) that apply to computers also apply to smart TVs. Read on to learn about the privacy and security risks of smart TVs, and what you can do to minimize them...

How to Stop Smart TV Spying

What makes a smart TV smart? When they were first introduced, it was the ability to connect to the Internet, and bring streaming channels and movies to your living room. Later, built-in microphones and cameras added features such as voice commands, hand gestures, and facial recognition, allowing you to control your viewing without so much as picking up the remote.

But both the internet connectivity and those advanced interaction features can be a liability. If a hacker gains access to your connected TV by exploiting a vulnerability, they could use those built-in cameras and microphones to spy on you and your conversations, while you sit transfixed on your couch. And if they hack your smart TV, they can use your Wi-Fi network to gain access to other devices on your home network, such as desktops, laptops, baby monitors, and even your "smart" appliances.

One article I found on this topic said something to the effect that "a bad actor can take control of your television," and do nefarious things like change the channel, or show inappropriate content to children. That made me laugh, and reminded me of the early-1990s Goodtimes Virus spoof. If a hacker gains access to your TV, they won't out themselves by doing something as obvious and stupid as that.

Why do I mention the possibility of your smart TV getting hacked? According to a Wikileaks article from 2017, the CIA was doing exactly that to some Samsung models. That vulnerability has been patched, but you can be sure there are ongoing efforts in this realm.

But the larger threat to your privacy comes from within. Smart TV sets use a surveillance technique called Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) to figure out what you're watching. By "watching what you watch," whether it's on streaming services like Netflix, cable, satellite or broadcast TV channels, even DVDs or video games, ACR can identify the content by comparing snippets of onscreen data with a database of known recorded works. If you've ever used Shazam on your phone to identify a song, you can see show this would work on your TV.

Is your TV spying on you?

ACR does have some legitimate uses. It can be used to identify copyright violations, and also to personalize your viewing. If it can determine what kind of shows you watch, it may be used to recommend similar content. But it exists primarily to collect your viewing data and sell it to data brokers. Your viewing profile is bundled with your IP address, from which your approximate location and socioeconomic status can be determined. You can then be targeted with ads on your TV, smartphone, and desktop computer for products that fit your profile.

A study done by Northeastern University found that many smart TVs sent the ACR data to Amazon, Facebook, and Google. ACR viewing data was also sent to Netflix, even if the service was not present or activated on a set. Targeted ads are common on the Internet. You visit a website selling shoes, and you see ads for shoes. The same is happening as you "surf" the content on your TV screen.

In 2017, Vizio was fined $2 million by the FTC for selling this data without disclosing the surveillance to customers. Such disclosures are now mandatory. The "permissions" are granted (on an opt-out basis) by the user during setup, and the option to disable data collection is available in the TV settings. But each manufacturer calls it something different, and it can be hard to find the privacy settings. Samsung calls it Viewing Information Services, on Vizio sets it's Viewing Data. LG calls it Live Plus, and Sony has Samba Interactive.

Consumer Reports has instructions for turning off ACR on most major TV brands, including Hisense, Insignia, LG, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, TCL, Toshiba and Vizio.

You should also check the privacy settings on any streaming services you use. Here's how to find those settings for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Youtube, Roku. You'll want to check for things like deleting your watch history, ad tracking/personalization options, Data Monitoring settings, and turning off interest-based ads.

What About Those Cameras and Microphones?

Built-in cameras can be used to enable hand gestures to control your TV. LG sets with embedded cameras have supported hand gestures for a decade. Sony's Bravia Cam allows you to use hand signals to pause, adjust volume or turn off the TV. But it will also scold you if you're too close to the screen. Microphones and speech recognition tech allows you to change the channel or search for a show.

As I mentioned earlier, a determined hacker with knowledge of a remotely exploitable vulnerability could use your TV set as a way to watch you. Even if you're not concerned about hackers, do you really need to control your TV by pointing or grunting?

Check the settings to see if these features can be disabled on your TV. Or if you can find the camera on the face of your smart TV, a piece of black tape can be used to cover it.

In closing, here are a few more tips to boost the privacy and security of your smart TV:


  • Find out what kinds of data your specific model is collecting, what is done with that data, and how you can limit that. This information should be in your manual, or on the vendor's website. Search online for your TV's model number and the word “privacy.”

  • Don’t rely on factory settings. Explore the privacy settings on your set, and change any default passwords if you can.

  • Check the manufacturer's website to see if there are any updates or security patches that can be applied.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Are you concerned about your smart TV spying on you? Tell me what think, and what you've done about it. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Is Your Smart TV Spying On You? (yes, and here's how to stop it)"

Posted by:

Stephen
09 Jan 2024

As I recently bought a new house and don't have a tv, but am looking for one, this issue concerns me. In my previous house I had a dumb tv and used my Roku box to connect to the tv via an hdmi cable. Roku had the ethernet cable so it was an all-wired connection, not wireless.
So, if I go with the same type of connection with a new tv (even if it's a smart one) do those issues regarding ACR and spying still come into play? Sure, I will disable what I can, but I've been seeing things like 'this tv brand puts ads on the screen while you are watching content' and other similar problems.
Thank you.


Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
09 Jan 2024

Thank you for writing this item, Bob! It enabled me to improve the privacy and security of yet another set of devices that may have the ability to connect to the Internet in my home.

I have an older Samsung TV. It doesn't have a camera or a microphone, so neither of those are an issue for me. Thanks to this article, I opened the settings app on my TV, and disabled the Viewing Information Service. I'll have to carefully inspect the other privacy settings later today.

Ernie (Oldster)


Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
09 Jan 2024

Steven,

To answer your question (above), the first step I'd suggest would be to secure your Internet gateway device. It is either a discrete router, or a router-modem. Using your computer, go to the Shields Up website at https://www.grc.com/x/ne.dll?bh0bkyd2, and read the section titled "If you are new to this site and our services", then read the rest of the landing page to discover whether your connection's "machine name" specifically identifies you. When you're finished with the landing page, use the "Proceed" button to continue.

When you get your new TV, take the time to go through all the security and privacy settings rather than just going with the default configuration. This is the advice I'd give to anyone who is setting up any digital/electronic/smart device.

I hope this helps,

Ernie


Posted by:

DeeDee
09 Jan 2024

We have cable so don't need a smart TV. But it's IMPOSSIBLE to buy a new "NON-smart" TV nowadays

If we never connect the TV to WIFI, are we protected from spying? (BTW, bypassing the WIFI connection was a major struggle with our latest TV)


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