When you watch your Smart TV, it could also be watching you

This smart TV takes tracking to a new level

By Andrea Peterson November 10 at 11:20 AM  

When you watch your Smart TV, it could also be watching you.

A new report from Julia Angwin at ProPublica reveals that Vizio, a top television maker, automatically tracks the viewing habits of Smart TV owners and shares that information with advertisers in a way that could connect those preferences to what those customers do on their phones or other mobile devices.

Vizio's "Smart Interactivity Program" is turned on by default for its 10 million Smart TV customers, ProPublica reported, and works like this: The company analyzes snippets of what you watch, be it on Netflix or traditional television, and connects patterns in your viewing behavior with your Internet Protocol address -- an online identifier that can be used to pinpoint every device connected from your home. That includes everything from your laptop and phone to your smart thermostat. That information is then shared with Vizio's partners, who in turn could use that data to help to target advertisements.

In an e-mailed response to a Washington Post inquiry, a Vizio spokesperson said the company's data mining programs are part of a "revolutionary shift across all screens that brings measurability, relevancy and personalization to the consumer like never before." Vizio said it shares "aggregate, anonymized data" with media and data companies so they can "make better-informed decisions" about content and advertising strategies.

The spokesperson did not dispute the underlying facts in ProPublica's report, but said the company believes the article "reflects a filtered opinion of our recently updated VIZIO Privacy Policy."

The company's privacy policy says it will share viewing data "together with the IP address associated with the corresponding VIZIO television" with third-party partners. "These third parties may combine this information with other information about devices associated with that IP address, in order to customize the advertisements displayed on those other devices," it says. The company "imposes strict conditions of confidentiality" when sharing IP addresses with third parties, according to the policy. Customers can opt-out of the program from their television’s settings menu.

There are laws that limit how companies share information about video watching habits, including the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). However, Vizio says that those laws do not apply to its tracking service because the company associates IP addresses with the data rather than a person's name or other "personally identifiable information."

It's true that some U.S. courts have held that IP addresses do not constitute personally identifiable information. However, privacy regulators in the European Union disagree. And IP addresses are increasingly used by data brokers to paint detailed portraits of who people are.

Vizio isn't the first television maker to face scrutiny over the privacy of Smart TV technology. Earlier this year, Samsung appeared in a flurry of headlines about eavesdropping televisions and changed its privacy policy over a section that seemed to imply it was constantly listening in and sending data off to a third party. (The third party, Samsung clarified, was a voice recognition company whose services helped make the television's voice audio features work.)

Samsung and fellow Vizio rival LG Electronics have similar programs that track Smart TV customers' viewing habits, but only if customers turn on the feature, according to ProPublica.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.


Popular posts from this blog

Report: World’s 1st remote brain surgery via 5G network performed in China

Visualizing The Power Of The World's Supercomputers

BMW traps alleged thief by remotely locking him in car