Smart TV Vendor Fined For Spying On Its Customers

The FTC settled this week with TV maker Vizio for spying on its customers and not telling them about it.  Vizio agreed to pay a $2 million fine (which I suspect to them is a nuisance fee), get consumer consent, implement a privacy program and conduct a biennial review, among other things.

Here are the details.  Going back to 2014, Vizio TVs could track your viewing habits, down to the second.  Whether you were watching live TV, broadband Internet, DVD, Neflix or whatever, they could still track what you were watching.

Vizio then added whatever demographic data they could – age, sex, income, education, home ownership and home values.  One possible way to do that was by associating you with the names of WiFi access points the TV was connected to and other WiFi names nearby.  That probably is close enough to ID you.  They also provided your IP address to these third parties.

According to the FTC complaint Vizio was collecting 100 billion data points PER DAY from 10 million televisions.

Vizio took that data and provided it to third parties for both measuring audience levels and advertising effectiveness.  If you took your Tivo and skipped over the commercial, the advertiser knew it.

This was all happening since 2014, including TVs sold before then – they updated the firmware in the TV to give it the needed capability.

Starting in 2016, they started sharing that information with advertisers to target ads toward their customers.

In 2016, when they turned on this last spyware capability, they popped up a message on screen for 30 seconds that said they were collecting data.  After 30 seconds, whether someone was watching the TV at that time or not and without any input from the user, that message disappeared.

This “feature” of spying on you was called “Smart Interactivity”.  The manual said this meant they could provide programming related information as part of the broadcast.  It didn’t say anything about collecting or selling your viewing habit data.

The interesting question is how many other companies are doing this same thing – cable, satellite, netflix, etc.   One thing that makes the Vizio situation a little different is that they were able to capture anything you were watching, no matter the source of the content.

This is just one reason that I am not very fond of smart TVs.

Information for this post came from the FTC web site.



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