Is Your Smart TV Tracking You?

By Brenda Flanagan

“You know, people call them smart TVs, but they’re really spy TVs,” said Claire Gartland.

Internet privacy expert Gartland’s talking about smart TVs made by VIZIO, which just agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle federal and state allegations that they broke consumer laws. New Jersey’s attorney general says, “[New Jersey] residents enjoying television in the privacy of their own homes had no idea that every show they watched, every movie they rented, every commercial they muted was being secretly tracked by the defendants who then exploited that personal information for corporate profit.” Investigators claimed VIZIO’s complex settings made it almost impossible to opt out.

“VIZIO was really the one that was tracking you unless you said stop. Most of the other companies require a user to consent to that, first,” Gartland said.

“I personally own a VIZIO and until the FTC reported on it, I had no idea that my TV was recording my viewing habits and I’m a privacy advocate,” said Jennifer Lynch.

Cybersecurity expert Lynch says VIZIO sold the info — including zip codes and shopping preferences — to third party data collectors.

“And all of a sudden, there’s a picture out there about you that marketers and insurers can use to potentially discriminate against you on basis of factors that you have no control over,” Lynch said.

VIZIO insists it “…never paired viewing data with personally identifiable information such as name or contact information…” and says, “…the FTC has made clear that all smart TV makers should get people’s consent before collecting and sharing television viewing information and VIZIO now is leading the way.” VIZIO also agreed to delete all the data it had mined.

“These smart devices are like Trojan horses. They are sitting inside our living rooms, they are sitting inside on our desktops and gathering all this information,” said Rashmi Jain, professor of information and operation management at Montclair State University.

Many consumers realize internet-connected devices like Alexa communicate their information. Websites track your shopping habits. Look for something like a silver bracelet on Amazon and jewelry ads will follow you, perhaps pop up on Facebook. Siri’s a link straight to Apple, via your iPhone and mobile apps ping your location — all at the price of privacy.

“We are willingly giving up our privacy for convenience. For mobility. We have all these mobile apps and we are walking around and we want everything to be available in our hands wherever we go,” Jain said.

Experts warn even your open laptop can compromise privacy. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg covers his laptop camera with tape. So does Gartland.

“I don’t think it’s at all crazy. There’s also been stories of a technologically sophisticated ex-boyfriend hacking into his ex-girlfriend’s computer to turn on the laptop camera. So I don’t think that that’s at all paranoid,” Gartland said.

Internet privacy experts say they’re concerned the FTC won’t be as vigilant under new administration. New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Law is powerful, but it’s only as good as the office that enforces it.