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U.S. Senators Express Concern Over Smart TV Privacy

by August 13, 2018
Senators Express Concern SmartTV Privacy

Senators Express Concern SmartTV Privacy

In April of 2018, U.S. Senators Ed Markey from Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut introduced a bill intended to protect personal information from online privacy breaches. The legislation was offered in response to the Facebook privacy scandal, in which the now-infamous British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica reportedly accessed the data of more than 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent. “America deserves a privacy bill of rights that puts consumers, not corporations, in control of their personal, sensitive information,” Markey said in a prepared statement at the time of the bill’s introduction. “The avalanche of privacy violations by Facebook and other online companies has reached a critical threshold, and we need legislation that makes consent the law of the land.” Now Senators Markey and Blumenthal, who are both members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, are aiming their privacy concerns at a somewhat less conspicuous privacy threat: smart TVs.

The two Democrats recently sent a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joseph Simons, expressing concerns about “consumer privacy issues raised by the proliferation of smart-TV technology.” In their letter, the senators warn that various tech companies are using smart TVs to track the viewing habits of Americans without their knowledge. Senators Markey and Blumenthal went on to request that the FTC ramp up its investigation of these business practices. The issue first gained widespread attention last year, when the TV manufacturer Vizio was forced to pay a $2.2 million settlement for installing data-collection software on 11 million TVs built between 2014 and 2017. According to the charges brought by the FTC and the New Jersey Attorney General, Vizio’s software captured information about whatever images were displayed on the screen, regardless of the source. Vizio sold this information to third parties, along with demographic details such as age, gender, and income levels. As part of the settlement, Vizio agreed to “prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent for its data collection and sharing practices” moving forward, but the problem persists throughout the industry.

In their letter to the FTC chairman, Senators Markey and Blumenthal refer to a recent New York Times article that examines “How Smart TVs in Millions of U.S. Homes Track More Than What’s On Tonight.” The article’s focus is a San Francisco software company called Samba TV, which collects viewing information from over 13 million smart TVs in the United States. The company uses this data to make personalized programming suggestions for the viewer, but it also sells the data to advertisers who can then target their ads toward customers who are more likely to be interested in their products and services. Samba TV has raised $40 million in venture funding from investors (including Time Warner, and the Texas billionaire Mark Cuban), and has deals with Sony, Sharp, Philips, and several other TV manufacturers. Samba pays these brands to include its software on their television sets. The manufacturers see these deals as free money, which can help offset the slim margins on their smaller TVs.

So how exactly does Samba TV get information about what people are watching? When performing the initial setup of a new TV, the customer is asked to enable something called “Samba Interactive TV,” which supposedly recommends programming content “by cleverly recognizing” what the customer likes to watch. The customer is not informed about how much information will be collected, nor about the fact that this information will be sold to advertisers. The software works by reading the pixels displayed on the screen, on a second-by-second basis. This allows Samba to track content from a wide variety of sources, including cable boxes, streaming services, and disc players. It knows what ads you see, and even what video games you play. The advertisers who pay for this data can then direct specific ads to specific customers, and can send those ads to mobile devices and computers running on the same wifi network as the TV. For example, an advertiser armed with intel from Samba can send one ad to CNN viewers, and a different ad to those who watch Fox News.

Senators Markey and Blumenthal stated in their letter that “smart-TV users may not be aware of the extent to which their televisions are collecting sensitive information about their viewing habits,” and that Samba TV “does not provide sufficient information about its privacy practices to ensure users can make truly informed decisions.” But for now, companies like Samba TV are not regulated by the same relatively strict rules that cable companies are subject to, and there is no guarantee that the FTC will take action in response to the senators’ letter. Should the FTC go after Samba TV?

About the author:
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Jacob is a music-lover and audiophile who enjoys convincing his friends to buy audio gear that they can't afford. He's also a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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