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Smart TVs and Privacy: How And Why You’re Being Spied on at Home

If you’re tired of censorship and surveillance, join Reclaim The Net.

It would be of no surprise to learn that your smart TV is tracking you.

As wires and waves wrap around the globe tighter and tighter, the world is becoming a very crowded, tiny place. Personal space is not as personal as the name suggests. Many of us are accustomed to the idea of being “subtly” spied on by technological giants like Facebook and Google. To a certain degree, allowing these companies to gather some personal information is something that we have to surrender to enjoy high-quality service and satisfying user experience.

The sad thing is that the scope of the aforementioned spying starts stepping beyond reasonable limits. We, customers, don’t want to fall under scrutiny every time we make purchases or find a new funny video. Recent scandals around Facebook suggest that users had enough of corporations invading their personal space.

While many are concerned with problems related to their smartphones and laptops, another issue silently arises on the horizon. Smart TVs may very well be the next critical discussion topic in regards to privacy and excessive data collection by corporations.

Using Your Television Can Be…Dangerous?

Consumer Reports tested five smart TVs currently available all over the globe. The main concern of the CR staff was the vulnerability of these devices to potential hacking and remote spying. The findings were far from optimistic. TCL 55P605 and Samsung UN49MU7000 were tested positive for some minor vulnerabilities. The researchers were able to mess with sound settings, Wi-Fi, and switch channels using a smartphone connected to the same Wi-Fi network with the TVs.

However, these inconsequential vulnerabilities can be patched and don’t have any severe impact on our lives anyway. A TV that randomly switches channels or turns the volume up to eleven can be scary, but it is not something to be overly worried about. Excess data collection, on the other hand, should be a warning sign.

Samsung Privacy Policy for Smart TVs states:

“We collect, use, share, and store information through your SmartTV in the ways described in the Samsung Privacy Policy. This Supplement provides additional details about the privacy practices of some SmartTV features.”

This statement is straight-forward, yet many users do not know some nuances of privacy policies common for the industry. For example, there is a relatively innocent and straightforward technology called automatic content recognition. It knows what you are watching and when collects this valuable information and sends it back to the manufacturer who can share this data with companies like Netflix, CBS, Amazon, etc.

ACR can be disabled. Nonetheless, many users choose to leave the option untouched, due either to the lack of knowledge or desire to keep some functionality intact. While ACR sneakily gathers data, content providers use it to recommend you shows and make your overall experience, arguably, better.

One of the problems modern users have to deal with is that you have to agree to a privacy policy before you can use your new device to its fullest potential. Many TVs use the Android platform and thus require you to connect to the internet and accept terms and conditions suggested by Google.

Smart TV manufacturers have been closely collaborating with live services like AirPlay 2 and iTunes. Won-Jin Lee, Executive Vice President, Service Business of Visual Display at Samsung Electronics, noted: “Bringing more content, value and open platform functionality to Samsung TV owners and Apple customers through iTunes and AirPlay is ideal for everyone.”

It is great to hear that corporations care about their customers. Unfortunately, we all know where this particular path leads. As more live services and smart features are being integrated into smart TVs, we become exposed to cyber threats and unreasonable data collection practices.

If you’re looking to turn off Smart TV tracking, check out our guides:

How to Stop Your LG Smart TV From Tracking What You Watch
How to Turn Off Your Samsung Smart TV Tracking Features
How to Stop Your Sony Smart TV From Tracking What You Watch
How to Stop Your Amazon Fire TV Edition Smart TV From Tracking You
How to Turn Off Your Vizio Smart TV Tracking Features
How to Stop Your Roku Smart TV From Tracking You

What the Future Holds for Smart TVs

Recently, users of Vizio TVs received a particularly interesting message that urged them to collect their “money” from a lawsuit worth $17 million. The company was accused of spying on users of their TVs. Vizio decided to settle for paying out $17 million. While this event is amusing to some, the very fact that manufacturers are willing to gather information, as some suspect, illegally is more than concerning.

Publications such as USA Today, The Verge, NY Times, and many more covered this issue extensively. However, many journalists did not focus on the ongoing legal discussion regarding privacy policies and technologies employed by Smart TV manufacturers. Us senators Edward J Markey and Richard Blumenthal urged the FTC to start investigating these issues in their letter. Surprisingly enough, the FTC responded quickly, but the investigation was never initiated.

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a formal complaint about the data collection practices employed by Samsung in their Smart TVs. The first issue of the complaint was filed in 2015. As of May 18th, 2018, there were no further developments.

The Good and the Bad Of Smart TV Tracking

You may have noticed that Smart TV prices are lower than before. A huge contributing factor to this change is the fact that manufacturers make a profit by selling collected data to parties interested in purchasing what you are watching and when.

Vizio’s CTO Bill Baxter told The Verge: “it’s not just about data collection. It’s about post-purchase monetization of the TV. This is a cutthroat industry. It’s a 6-percent margin industry, right? I mean, you know it’s pretty ruthless. You could say it’s self-inflicted, or you could say there’s a greater strategy going on here, and there is. The greater strategy is I really don’t need to make money off of the TV. I need to cover my cost.”

Some devices subtly track your preferences in regards to ads and help content providers push advertisements aggressively without you knowing about it.

As mentioned previously, this data may not be significant in the grand scheme of things and even improve your evenings since you may be struggling to choose what to binge watch. The ocean of content available to people makes it hard to find something entertaining to you personally. Because of it, special content-suggesting algorithms based on the data collected by ACR are very convenient.

The real question is whether your comfort and low prices are a fitting price for allowing the corporations to spy on you. Before you answer this question, think about the “always on” feature implemented in many modern Smart TVs including those made by Samsung.

The voice recognition and commands seem convenient and neat. However, many people do not realize how this technology works and what it means for your privacy. Essentially, the TV is constantly recording the sound. These recordings are short and used exclusively to recognize voice patterns, but they are still recordings made when you think that the TV is off. While the manufacturers do not hide this fact, many users do not read every single line of policies and technical documents related to their devices.

Having a spying device that never sleeps in your living room is definitely a bad thing. At the very least, you should be informed about this feature and provided sufficient information to understand HOW exactly it works.

The Main Takeaway

The saddest part is that we don’t really have an alternative since almost all modern Smart TVs feature some forms of data collection technologies. There is no hiding from digital ears and eyes even when we enjoy the comfort of our very own living rooms. Sitting in front of your television and enjoy the latest season of Marvel’s Daredevil is not an intimate experience. You are being watched.

The CEOs and CTOs may try to convince you that their decisions are consumer-oriented and bring only positive changes, but every coin has two sides. Yes, you can opt out by turning off specific features like ACR or voice recognition. Yes, you may think that what these companies know about you and your habits is insignificant, but you should not ignore this important discussion. Stay informed.

If you’re tired of censorship and surveillance, join Reclaim The Net.

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