“Let our rigorous testing and reviews be your guidelines to A/V equipment – not marketing slogans”
Facebook Youtube Twitter Google Plus instagram pinterest

Is Your TV Watching You? Vizio Busted for Spying on Customers

by February 12, 2017

Back in the 1990s, conspiracy theories gained a strong foothold on the American psyche. Fueled by the most paranoid corners of AM radio, many were convinced that the US government used outrageously advanced technology to spy on its citizens. Some even believed their own TVs could be used to spy on them. I worked as a road tech in Southeast Michigan in the 90s, visiting houses daily to fix broken TVs and other home electronics. That’s when I met a certain breed of customer that, as a rule, routinely unplugged their TVs after use. They were convinced that the household TV was a two-way communication device capable of feeding audio and video both to and from their living room directly to government agents. I was surprised how widespread that belief had become.

In those days, the capability of CRT and speaker technology was truly misunderstood by some. But, who knew their seemingly misguided belief would turn out to be prophetic? Only a decade later Smart TV and Internet technology would offer conveniences so seductive that we would unquestioningly pay the price of privacy to get on board. Fast forward to 2017, and today it’s common knowledge that all of our Internet data is being warehoused at government controlled NSA data centers. Meanwhile, private companies are tracking our personal consumer habits, which we gleefully give away without a care through social networks and media channels.

90s Orwellian Prophecy to 2010s Reality

Big BrotherWe’ve grown to expect surveillance in predicted places, like at the airport, the ATM, our web-mail and office email accounts, Google searches, and the preferences we freely provide to software companies in exchange for a free social experience and a measure of convenience. It’s fair to operate under the assumption that just about everything you do online is saved and stored by someone, somewhere.

It’s true that private companies say they are only using your data to efficiently advertise to you and government agencies say they are only looking for terrorists… today. But stored data is eternal and today’s terrorists are tomorrow’s drug dealers, and the next tomorrow’s dissenters, journalists or unbelievers. Could the marketing and NSA data collection of today be used as evidence of the crimes of tomorrow? The door for civil rights abuses is opened wide when your personal data is collected and saved, even if for now it’s only being used to sell silly t-shirts custom tailored to your browsing history or Facebook Likes. When it comes to free online services, they say that if you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

But what if you are the customer, and they make you the product anyway?

That’s exactly the charge against Vizio by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) this week at the office of the New Jersey Attorney General, where the company was accused of selling the personal usage-data of its customers without their knowledge. But it may come as a surprise to many that your Smart TV might be collecting personal data and selling it third parties right now, and it’s actually perfectly legal. Do you remember the fine print when you setup your new Smart TV for the first time? It’s probably one of those details you zipped past as you set up the Internet connection and logged into Netflix. Most Smart TVs are capable of gathering and sending personal information about your and your family’s viewing habits and you might not even be aware - but there are measures you can take to protect yourself.

Vizio, Toast to Traitor of HDTV

VizioVizio has long been one of the strongest buys in TV. In terms of bang-for-buck quality, you’d be hard pressed to beat Vizio at any time over the last decade. We’ve recommended Vizio TVs here on Audioholics because the brand has built a name for itself with their surprisingly good quality sets for a reasonable price. On February 6, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that Vizio must pay out a settlement of $2.2 million for selling data collected on some 11-million consumers using the company’s smart TVs.

Built into many Smart TVs is Automated Content Recognition (ACR) software that can be used to collect info on the viewing habits of users. Many TVs have the capability but they all legally require your permission to use it. In fact most TVs have ACR-like functions that you can enable or disable right in the menu. In Vizio’s case, the ACR function has the innocuous name of “Smart Interactivity”. They make it sound like a good thing.

When ACR was demonstrated to the court, TVs were able to take partial screenshots and audio clips to determine everything from viewers’ TV channels and apps of choice to DVDs and Blu-rays they own. It turns out that Vizio had been selling this data along with its customers’ demographic information, such as sex, age, income levels and household value.

As part of the settlement, Vizio has promised to stop tracking its customers’ personal data and selling it to third parties. But the third parties that already bought the data aren’t required to relinquish any of it. Vizio never revealed exactly to whom the data was sold - only that it consisted of:

authorized data partners including analytics companies, media companies and advertisers.”  

It’s understandable that Vizio customers might now have trust issues with the company. But not to fear, you don’t have to throw away a perfectly good TV. There are ways to protect yourself from a spying smart TV, no matter what the brand.

Stop Your TV from Watching You

Vizio DisableOn older Vizio TVs (older than 2011 models), you’ll want to double check that ACR or Smart Interactivity has already been disabled. Hit Menu on your TV’s remote control and go to Settings then Smart Interactivity, and switch it off.

On newer Vizio TVs (2011 or newer), Press Menu on the remote, select System, then select Reset and Admin, then highlight Smart Interactivity and turn it off with a press of the right arrow button.

Of course, the only way to ensure that your TV isn’t sending out information on you is to keep it off the Internet and download software updates separately and use a USB thumb drive to update your TV firmware.

But if your only moderately paranoid about your TV spying on you, you may be satisfied simply disabling the offending features in your TV. Here are some of the ways you disable data collection on many of the most popular smart TVs today.

Choose Your Brands and Disable ACR

Generally, TV companies want you to let them use your information and will bury your approval to do so in a screen full of legalize and tell you to select “I Agree” - nobody actually reads that stuff. But here’s how you can renege on your initial agreement to let them take your data.

LG

According to Consumer Reports, new LG webOS TVs don’t have the ability to collect your personal viewing data, but older sets (pre-webOS) may. This can be disabled by going into your older LG TV’s Options menu, selecting Live Plus and switching it off.

Samsung

A new Samsung TV will ask if it can track viewing data when you turn it on. Decline this, and theoretically, it will not spy. But if you’re not sure how you set it up, try this:

Go to Smart Hub menu, select Terms & Policy, then select SyncPlus and Marketing, then disable.

Samsung has had its own share of allegations that it’s been listening in on your household conversations. In 2015 it was discovered that Samsung Smart TVs with voice recognition had the innate ability to listen in on any activity within hearing distance of your TV’s built-in microphone. ( see: Newsweek ) Of course Samsung says it’s fixed the issue since that time, but it’s probably still a good idea to disable voice recognition if you’re not using it.

To disable voice recognition on Samsung smart TVs: From the same menu where you disabled SyncPlus and Marketing, you should also disable Voice Recognition.

Sony

Sony’s higher-end Smart TVs of today use Android TV, which is owned by Google. So, your Sony smart TVs data-gathering policies are inherited from your Google account and only used by Google. Sony TV sets that have a microphone are also able to collect data through audio recognition. Your Sony TV has a Setup menu where you can find Initial Setup, which contains Upload TV Usage and Statistics. This is where you can agree/disagree to participate in any data collection.

In Retrospect

These days, fewer and fewer people seem to care that companies or even the government are gathering data on them. It’s likely true that an overwhelming majority of the data being collected is thoroughly anonymous - these companies and organizations are not interested in who you are, they’re interested in statistics so they can better market to your demographic.

Or is it that that’s only what they want you to believe?

Confused about what AV Gear to buy or how to set it up? Join our Exclusive Audioholics E-Book Membership Program!

 

About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

View full profile

Recent Forum Posts:

brianapp posts on February 20, 2017 22:04
The $2.2 million payment by VIZIO includes a payment of $1.5 million to the FTC and $1 million to the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, with $300,000 of that amount suspended.


Why does The FTC and New Jersey get the money? It should go to the people who have these TVs. It comes off as government extortion when the government collects the money instead of the people who were affected by the issue.
Wayde Robson posts on February 15, 2017 06:31
I have to admit that before writing this article I didn't care that (one of) my TVs connected to the Internet. I recently followed the directions to turn off the tracking feature on my Sony smart TV.

It's a secondary TV, not main. When it is used, it's primarily by my 4 year old daughter, sometimes my wife. I can't imagine any coherent marketing profile data coming from its use.

My main TV is pre-Smart TV, it's an old Panasonic plasma, still one of the best PQs I've ever seen. I'm not sure even the new LED 4K TVs can beat the black levels and depth of that TV.
Pogre posts on February 14, 2017 15:55
lovinthehd, post: 1172747, member: 61636
….and what do all you guys do to prevent your phones from doing much worse than a smart tv? LOL.
I bury mine in a lead box in the back yard when I'm not using it…
lovinthehd posts on February 14, 2017 15:54
….and what do all you guys do to prevent your phones from doing much worse than a smart tv? LOL.
John Nemesh posts on February 14, 2017 15:17
In Amerikkka, TV watches YOU!
Post Reply