VIZIO Inc, one of the world’s largest makers of smart TVs, has agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle charges it tracked and saved data on the viewing habits of 11 million customers without their consent. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the State of New Jersey brought the case that charged VIZIO with unfair practices.
Data is increasingly valuable. Marketing firms, product developers and advertisers who want to target a specific demographic will pay good money for the information. Allegedly, VIZIO gathered info including age, sex, income, marital status, education level, household size, then sold it to third parties government investigators claimed.
The question you are probably asking is, “How?” The answer is, “It’s easier than you realize.”
Your TV probably contains a web browser that connects to the Internet. This helps with Netflix and other streaming services. Gathered data is then linked to your IP address, which pinpoints your location. That data is then shared with the maker and, sadly, it’s not always encrypted during transmission.
These are all facts you’d probably like to know in advance, right? This settlement will add much-needed transparency to the process.
VIZIO’s data harvesting began in February 2014 and continued for over two years. VIZIO and an affiliate who built the company’s smart TVs could capture second-by-second information on the images being displayed on each smart device. In addition to cable or streaming, that included what 11 million individuals viewed on DVD. Yup, if you’re a VIZIO owner, your secret addictions are not private any more. But don’t panic; that data will not hang around much longer.
“VIZIO (will) prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent for its data collection and sharing practice,” an FTC statement said. “It also requires the company to delete data collected before March 1, 2016, and to implement a comprehensive data privacy program and biennial assessments of that program.”
We all realize smart TV’s can record voices. No worries if you’re using voice prompts to change channels. Big problem if you’re having a knockdown, drag-out fight with your spouse. TVs can record even if you’re not watching a program and most contain cameras, too.
It’s not just VIZIO who likes listening in. LG and Samsung have also experienced government run-ins over digital eavesdropping. Then there are companion devices like Amazon Echo with Alexa, the audio-activated home assistant that responds to human voices to grant your every wish. Alexa records human speech. In Bentonville, Arkansas, police have requested audiotapes from an Echo device that could have recorded voices or sounds during a murder. Amazon told authorities they’d have to get a warrant. Still, this is just a glimpse of where smart technology could be used in the next few years.
Want to dumb down that TV? Over time, these devices will lose some of their smarts because they (currently) aren’t updated and could soon become outdated.
But why wait? Most smart products are set to spy by default, but that feature can be turned off—if you can find it on the menu. Look for innocuous terms like ‘interactivity’ or other benign-sounding labels that could hide the option. After all, makers of smart TVs want your data. They’re not going to make it easy for you. They hope you’re not smart enough to find the setting and take back your privacy.
For more about how to dumb down that TV, check out HowToGeek.com.