Your Smart TV is Watching You

A recent study of smart TV privacy and security by Consumer Reports asked, “How much does your Smart TV know about you?” They looked at several major TV brands: LG, Samsung, Sony, TCL—which use the Roku TV smart TV platform—and Vizio.

Smart TVs connect to the internet, allowing users to stream videos from services such as Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix. Consumer Reports found that all smart TVs can collect and share considerable amounts of personal information about their viewers. Not only that, so can the countless third-party apps that work within the platforms. 

The Oregon office of the FBI released a warning back in December cautioning consumers that some smart TVs are vulnerable to hacking and a number of them have built-in video cameras. The good news is that newer models have eliminated the cameras – Consumer Reports’ labs haven’t seen one in any of the hundreds of new TVs tested in the past two years.

However, privacy concerns are still an issue. Researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London discovered that many smart TVs and other internet-connected devices send data to Amazon, Facebook, and Doubleclick, Google’s advertising business. Nearly all of them sent data to Netflix –  even if the app wasn’t installed – or the owner hadn’t activated it. 

A third study, this one conducted by researchers at Princeton and the University of Chicago, looked at Roku and Amazon Fire TV, two of the more popular set-top streaming devices. Testing found the TV’s tracking what their owners were watching and relaying it back to the TV maker and/or its business partners, using a technology called ACR, or “automated content recognition.” There were trackers on 69% of Roku’s channels and 89% of Fire TV’s channels – the numbers are likely to be the same for smart TVs that have Roku’s and Amazon’s native platforms. 

Testing found the TV’s tracking what their owners were watching and relaying it back to the TV maker and/or its business partners, using a technology called ACR, or “automated content recognition.”

On the surface, we love the technology behind ACR because it’s what makes our systems intuitive and recommend other shows we might enjoy watching. The downside is that the same information can be used for targeted advertising or be bundled with other aspects of our personal information to sold to other marketers. 

Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, says “For years, consumers have had their behavior tracked when they’re online or using their smartphones. But I don’t think a lot of people expect their television to be watching what they do.”

If you have privacy concerns about your Smart TV, check the manual on how to revert the device TV to factory settings and set them up again. Be sure to decline to have your viewing data collected.

For a more detailed analysis and instruction on protecting your privacy, check out Consumer Reports story How to Turn Off Smart TV Snooping Features.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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