Smart TVs and Data Privacy Concerns
Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Smart TVs marketed by Samsung, Vizio, Sony, Roku, and others provide everything imaginably viewable with just the click of a button ─ Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube ─ but what information are they collecting from you? What is being done with that information? Your TV knows what shows or videos to recommend to you because it, too, is watching. It’s listening and collecting a wealth of data about your viewing habits, your programming preferences, perhaps even your network passwords. When word spread that someone was able to hack a Vizio Smart TV and access a user’s personal home network, further investigation revealed the security of the information collected by these smart TVs and other internet-of-things devices was about as sturdy as a house of cards.

Television Big Brother is WatchingThe Vizio hacking incident definitely raised concerns about how secure smart TVs and other internet-connected devices really are. Now a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Vizio alleging that its use of data from smart TVs violates both federal and California state law. Consumer Reports in 2015 had already indicated smart TVs, like those manufactured by LG, Samsung, and Vizio, were collecting and sharing data on a massive scale. The lawsuit now alleges that the data collected by Vizio on its users’ viewing and programming habits is insufficiently protected, allowing marketers to access the data and even identify customers by name. While that is a little scary, the most important part of this equation is the piece involving users’ viewing habits. The data these TVs are able to collect via their content recognition software about what shows or videos you like to watch (your buying habits) is a nugget many are willing to pay very well for. However, if the data is somehow digitally accessible, they don’t have to pay. They just have to hack.
A security firm investigating Vizio’s data security recently uncovered something interesting. Basically, it appears these “smart TVs” are not smart enough to keep peeping toms out. The security firm reported that the storage of viewer information was vulnerable to digital eavesdropping, allowing third-party companies seeking the data to digitally intercept it and relay it back to base camp. That way, they know precisely which ads to hit you with and when. The class action complaint alleges that this is a violation of the Video Privacy Protection Act. In addition, the firm discovered that a hack of the TV could lead to a hack of the home network. Why? Because they’re connected. Everything on the internet is connected. It’s a beautiful curse.

It can be quite disconcerting when it happens to you. You get into your “smart” car to start driving home from work for the day and your navigation or phone tells you it’s ten minutes to home and traffic is light. Kind of spooky what it knows, but you make that drive every day. What really prickles your skin is when it starts sensing new patterns. Say you have a change in your everyday routine and you start making a new pit stop on your way home from work, let’s say to pick the girls up from karate. After a few days of the new routine, you get in your car at the office, and it tells you it is fourteen minutes to the karate studio and traffic is moderate. Whoa. It can give you a bit of a Big Brother vibe when this happens, but the program is really incredibly simple ─ monitor habits and provide data accordingly. It is the habits, however, that allow companies to specifically market to us. Studies have shown, this targeting more successfully influences us to buy a particular product, go to a particular place or watch a particular show. If the only options you perceive are limited, your decisions are undeniably guided.

In an increasingly interconnected world, it’s hard to imagine a way to keep this kind of data private, but do you think the use of habit data to influence your decisions is helpful? On the other hand, would you prefer, when you find yourself in need of a product or service that the search begins fresh, with no limitations or predetermined recommendations? 

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