Viewing Data From Smart TVs Used to Push Ads to All Your Screens

An updated privacy policy from smart TV maker Vizio notes that viewing behavior data may be used to serve adds to any device that "shares an IP address" with its Smart TV. (Image courtesy of Vizio.)
An updated privacy policy from smart TV maker Vizio notes that viewing behavior data may be used to serve adds to any device that “shares an IP address” with its Smart TV. (Image courtesy of Vizio.)

In-brief: Electronics maker Vizio is the latest smart television brand caught harvesting the viewing habits of its customers and selling the data to advertisers, highlighting legal loopholes that connected devices are exploiting.

Electronics maker Vizio is the latest maker of “smart” televisions to fall under scrutiny for what privacy advocates say is undue harvesting of customer viewing data for sale to advertisers.

A report this week by the non-profit news outfit ProPublica alleges that the Irvine, California company was tracking the viewing habits of its customers and sharing that information with advertisers, all without properly disclosing that activity in its privacy policy. Vizio has since updated its privacy policy to make its data harvesting practices explicit.

The article focuses on tracking features that Vizio has branded “Smart Interactivity.” According to ProPublica, the feature is turned on by default for the more than 10 million Smart TVs that Vizio has sold. Customers can opt-out of the Smart Interactivity monitoring by disabling it using the TV interface.

For those who don’t, Smart Interactivity analyzes both broadcast and streamed content viewed on the device, tracking information such as the date, time, channel and whether the program was viewed live or recorded.  Viewing patterns are matched to the IP address for your TV.

According to ProPublica, the monitoring of viewing information through IP addresses, while it does not identify individuals, can be combined with other data available in commercial databases from brokers such as Experian, creating a detailed picture of an individual or household.

Harvesting of viewing information from smart TVs isn’t a new phenomenon. Other leading makers of connected TVs also make a business of monitoring, collecting and monetizing viewer data. In 2014, for example, customers of consumer electronics giant LG raised alarms about the company’s decision to use a firmware update for its smart televisions to link the “smart” features of the device to viewer tracking and monitoring. Viewers who refused to consent to monitoring would not be able to use services like Netflix and YouTube.

In February, smart TV maker Samsung came under fire when the company noted in its Terms of Service that its televisions are capable of eavesdropping on the conversations that happen around them. That information may be “captured and transmitted to a third-party” through voice recognition features built into the set, Samsung acknowledged.

Vizio on October 31st issued a supplement to its Privacy Policy to better describe the company’s collection and use of viewing data. The company said it will combine “your IP address and other Non-Personal Information in order to inform third party selection and delivery of targeted and re-targeted advertisements.” Those advertisements “may be delivered to smartphones, tablets, PCs or other internet-connected devices that share an IP address or other identifier with your Smart TV.”

The company said it combines the Viewing Data and IP address it collects from customers with “other non-personal information (such as demographic information)” that it collects or that the company obtains from third parties. This is used to “enhance, model and further analyze the Viewing Data.”

The information gathered will be used to inform “tailored ads based upon your viewing history.” More critically: those ads won’t just appear on the Vizio TV, but may also “be displayed on the smartphones or other devices that share an IP address or other identifiers with your VIZIO television,” the company acknowledged.

The company has provided instructions for disabling the Smart Interactivity features and says that “connected” features of the device aren’t contingent on monitoring. A Vizio spokesman said the company was not able to respond to questions about the company’s viewer tracking behavior prior to publication.

As the ProPublica article points out: while broadcasters and video rental firms are explicitly prohibited from tracking viewers’ behavior by federal laws like the Video Privacy Protection Act, device makers generally consider themselves exempt from those prohibitions. In an S-1 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Vizio recently touted its ability to “capture real-time viewing behavior data” from smart TVs and “provide it to advertisers and media content providers.”