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Most smart TVs are tracking you — Vizio just got caught

Most smart TVs are tracking you — Vizio just got caught

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Vizio P-Series

Vizio got in trouble with the FTC this week and had to pay $2.2 million to settle charges around having monitored the viewing habits on more than 11 million TVs without consent over the course of two years.

The main problem was that Vizio TVs had tracking features turned on by default, instead of an opt-in setting like many other manufacturers use (and, as you’ll see, sometimes hide or trick you into accepting). Newer Vizio TVs that run the company’s SmartCast system have the tracking turned off by default.

It was a bad practice that people had been complaining about for years — a possible class action lawsuit was even filed in 2016 — but the situation is now a relatively good one for Vizio TV owners: the company is specifically prohibited from tracking your viewing habits without explicit permission.

For people who own other TVs and streaming boxes, it might still be a different story. Those devices are very likely still tracking your TV habits in one way or another, and they probably aren’t as clear about it as Vizio now has to be.

Here’s what you do and don’t need to worry about if you don’t want your TV tracking you.

What has Vizio been tracking?

Vizio has been collecting some fairly personal data. The company’s TVs are able to track what you watch on a second-by-second basis, whether you’re watching cable, playing a Blu-ray, or streaming a movie, according to the FTC.

That data is then paired with demographic details on you. That includes “sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education, home ownership, and household value.” The information is then sold to analytics and ad companies and used to target advertisements to you. This is something Vizio has been excited about: the data service, branded Inscape, was a key piece of the company’s IPO pitch to investors before the company agreed to sell itself to LeEco last year.

As Lesley Fair, a senior attorney with the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, puts it in a blog post, “Vizio then turned that mountain of data into cash by selling consumers’ viewing histories to advertisers and others. And let’s be clear: We’re not talking about summary information about national viewing trends. According to the complaint, Vizio got personal.”

The one thing Vizio didn’t allow, and still prohibits, is for this viewing data to be linked to a specific person. So companies may know info like your age and income, but they won’t have your specific name.

If you own a Vizio TV, you can stop all tracking

Vizio now has to “prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent” before tracking your viewing habits, thanks to a settlement with the FTC. The company tells The Verge that it’s begun sending out pop-ups to get owners’ consent — so you may have already dealt with this. But if not, it’s likely that tracking is still enabled, since Vizio had been turning it on by default.

The option to disable tracking is hidden deep inside some menus, but it’s easy enough to switch off if you know what to look for. Vizio has instructions on its website, but they boil down to: Go into Menu → System → Reset & Admin. On that screen, you’ll see an option called “Smart Interactivity”; you’ll either need to turn that off, or dive one menu deeper, into a section called “Viewing Data,” and turn that off. Either way, you’re done once it’s disabled.

If you happen to own a Vizio SmartCast set, you don’t have to worry about any of this — those sets never had the setting turned on in the first place.

Other smart TVs (and streaming boxes) do the same thing

In 2015, The Wirecutter took a really thorough look at the privacy policies for popular TVs and streaming devices, and it found that most are tracking you in one way or another — and they don’t all offer an option to opt out. Though it’s now a little over a year since the article was published, most of the information still appears to be current; it’s worth checking out if you want specific details on your devices.

It’s worth keeping in mind that, even if you don’t have a smart TV, your viewing habits can still be tracked through streaming devices you have set up.

You can turn off most smart TV tracking

Here’s how for some of the top TV brands:

  • Samsung: Samsung has an opt-in tracking service, called SyncPlus, that may have been turned on when your TV was set up. CBS News says the option to disable it is located in the settings menu, hidden inside the “Terms & Policy” section.
  • LG: It sounds like LG’s newer, webOS-based TV sets don’t have tracking enabled. But older LG smart TVs have a service, called LivePlus, that may have gotten enabled when you set up the TV. To turn it off, go to Settings → Smart TV settings and then disable LivePlus.
  • Sony: Wirecutter says that Sony also tries to enable a tracking service during the TV’s setup. It can be disabled inside the TV’s Help menu, under “Privacy Settings.” Doing so may disable some built-in recommendation features that rely on view tracking.

There are a lot of smart TVs out there and a lot of different names for their tracking features. If you own another brand’s smart TV, you can usually check the company’s privacy policy online; if there’s a section about advertising or recommendations, chances are there’s a tracking feature built in.

The situation might get better

In its settlement with the FTC, Vizio agreed to begin making its tracking notices much clearer. Future notices have to:

  1. Be presented on their own — so they can’t be buried in “terms of service” pages
  2. “Prominently disclose” what’s being tracked, what’ll be shared with third parties, who those parties are, and why it’s being shared
  3. Require the consumer to specifically agree to opt in
  4. Provide instructions on how to later opt out

This isn’t a legal standard — this is just something Vizio is held to because it messed up. But if other companies are worried about getting in trouble with the FTC, they now have a set of guidelines they can follow to make sure they get along without any problems. If we’re lucky, more TV manufacturers will begin following these guidelines, since they ought to make tracking settings much clearer.

The Wirecutter points out that, at this point, the situation is better and more transparent for Vizio owners than for anything else:

Streaming devices are another story

While smart TVs tend to let you disable their tracking features, The Wirecutter found that streaming devices largely do not. These devices also tend to collect different types of data: some include what you watch, others what you search for, and others what apps you’re using. Here’s what you can do to limit what’s captured:

  • Roku lets you “limit” but not fully disable tracking. You can do that by going to Settings → System → Privacy and checking “Limit Ad Tracking.”
  • Chromecast devices (including Android TVs or anything with Chromecast enabled) all have tracking turned on by default. For dedicated Chromecast units, it can be disabled through the Google Home app; for Android TVs, you’ll have to dig into the Chromecast settings in the settings menu; and for other devices you’ll have to search through their own menus to figure out where it’s located.
  • Apple also only allows you to “limit” ad tracking. On the newest Apple TV, that option is available under Settings → General → Privacy, where you can then enable the “Limit Ad Tracking” option. On earlier Apple TVs, you can also prevent Apple from receiving some device usage information by to Settings → General → Send Data to Apple and disabling the option.
  • Amazon allows you to opt out of some ad tracking effects on Fire TV devices. AFTVNews says that the option is located under Settings → System → Advertising ID. From there, you can turn off a setting called “Interest-based ads.” That said, it’s not clear if this actually disables Amazon’s tracking or if this just stops Amazon from sharing your info.

This behavior is surprisingly common

You may not realize it, but most of your interactions with internet-connected devices are being tracked in one way or another. Even this webpage, right this second, is tracking you, to see how long you read and how far down the page you scroll. Some advertiser may even use the fact that you read about smart TVs to advertise to you elsewhere.

I’m using The Verge as an example, but this is pretty standard stuff across the internet — and a lot of websites and a lot of apps are capable of tracking even more. And keep in mind, your internet provider sees just about everything you do as well.

That’s not to excuse the behavior of these TV manufacturers — tracking you without your knowledge is never okay — but it’s worth keeping in perspective. Your smart TV is, unfortunately, a small piece of a much bigger privacy issue.