Two Senate Democrats Call for Investigation into Smart TVs

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Yesterday’s New York Times reports that two Senators, Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal, have written to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) chairman Joseph Simons asking for an investigation “into the privacy policies and practices of smart TV manufacturers.”

The agency has so far taken limited steps to regulate this area– including conducting a workshop, and entering into a February 2017 settlement with Vizio, one of the world’s largest manufacturers and sellers of smart TVS, thus resolving charges that the company had collected viewing data on eleven million TVs without the knowledge and consent of consumers.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to rely heavily on the NYT account– as at the time of posting, I could find no other reporting on the topic other than what appeared in the NYT (except for  a short TV Tattle squib, which merely summarizes the NYT’s original reporting).

From yesterday’s NYT:

Companies are using new tools to identify and log what people are watching as part of an effort to profile consumers and direct ads to other devices in their homes. The letter cited a New York Times article, published last week, that detailed the practices of Samba TV, a San Francisco software company. Privacy advocates have criticized the company for not being transparent with consumers when it seeks permission to track their viewing on internet-connected TVs to sell ads.

The NYT account continues:

Samba TV, which said it collected viewing data from 13.5 million homes in the United States, has struck deals to place its software on certain sets from Sony, Sharp, TCL, Philips and other brands. The company essentially pays television manufacturers to be included on their sets, saying its business model “does subsidize a small piece of the television hardware,” though it declined to provide further details.

When consumers set up a TV with built-in Samba software, they encounter a screen asking them to enable Samba Interactive TV. The opt-in language reads: Interact with your favorite shows. Get recommendations based on the content you love. Connect your devices for exclusive content and special offers. By cleverly recognizing onscreen content, Samba Interactive TV lets you engage with your TV in a whole new way.”

I couldn’t find a copy of the letter to link to or embed on either Senator’s website– nor was it available on the website of the Senate Science, Commerce, and Transportation committee on which they both sit (the link to the minority news page is here). The letter is reproduced in full in the NYT account, but as an image, rather than a linkable file (I  appreciate that many readers cannot or as a matter of principle prefer not to visit the Grey Lady’s site but that’s the only version I’ve seen).

Here is the gist of that letter, in which the two Senators wrote:

Many internet-connected smart TVs are equipped with sophisticated technologies that can track the content users are watching and then use the information to tailor and deliver targeted advertisements to consumers. By identifying the broadcast and cable shows, video games, over-the-top content like Netflix, and other applications that users are viewing, smart TVs can compile detailed profiles about users’ preferences and characteristics. Recent reports even suggest that smart TVS can identify users’ political affiliations based on whether they watch conservative or liberal media outlets. This information about consumers’ viewing habits, by itself or in combination with the troves of additional personal data collected online and across other devices, allows companies to personalise advertisements based on detailed dossiers of individual users. Advertisements can then be sent to customers’s computer, phones, or any other device that shares the smart TCs’ internet connection.

Regrettably, smart TV users not be aware of the extent to which their televisions are collecting sensitive information about their viewing habits. Recent reports suggest that Samba TV, one of the largest companies tracking smart TV users’ viewing behavior, offers costumers the opportunity to enable their tracking service, but does not be provide [Jerri-Lynn here: sic] sufficient information about its privacy practices to ensure consumers can make true informed decisions. For example when prompting consumers to opt-into their ‘Interactive TV’ service, Samba TV denotes that the service allows users to obtain “exclusive content and special offers,” but does not clearly convey how much sensitive information about a user will be collected or whether the data will be used for targeted advertisements across different devices (citations omitted).

What Is To Be Done

Now, given current political realities, I’m betting we’re unlikely to see any meaningful regulation of the data collection and privacy practices of companies that make smart TVs or supply necessary software anytime soon– by the FTC or any other regulator, for that matter. I do appreciate the spotlight these Senators are focussing on the issue, however.

So, what can a TV viewer do? The best way of avoiding being tracked is to eschew buying a smart TV in the first place. I’ve not purchased a TV in the United States in many years myself, so I admit I have no idea how difficult that is to do at this time. Are all or most new TVs now offered for US sale smart models? I just don’t know. And I realize I’m not exactly an early adopter when it comes to using smart technologies anyway: I still make do with a trusty dumpbphone. When I’m done with whatever work has tethered me to the internet for that day and step away from my computer– I don’t want to be further tracked or monitored.

So, assuming that avoiding buying a smart TV may be difficult if not virtually impossible, the next best option would be to configure your smart TV so it cannot monitor you and your viewing habits. Although this may not be a perfect solution, it’s better than nothing.

Fortunately, last week, in the wake of the Grey Lady’s initial exposé on smart TV tracking, Lifehacker published a useful post, How to Stop Your Smart TV From Tracking You:

If you have a Smart TV, then chances are good it came with Samba TV, a technology that allows marketers to track what you’re watching so they can send you ads relevant to your interests (and make show recommendations).

Here’s what Lifehacker recommends you can do to opt out:

You need to opt in to Samba’s service when you set up your TV in order for it to track you, but as the Times points out, you’re likely to accidentally opt-in when blowing through the many screens of your set’s setup process without actually realizing what you’ve agreed to. Here’s specifically what you’re agreeing to with Samba.

Thankfully, you can also disable it.

Here are the directions for ditching Samba on your Sony TV (the process should be pretty similar for other televisions, but you might have to do a little hunting):

Turn on your TV
Press the HOME button on your remote control
Select Settings
Select Network.
Select “Samba Interactive TV”
Select “Samba Interactive TV : ON.” To turn off Samba TV, select Disable. To turn on Samba TV, select Enable.

And, even if your smart TV doesn’t use Samba, that doesn’t mean you’re free and clear of potential tracking either. There are other systems that may be in place, depending on who made your smart TV. Helpfully, Lifehacker also linked to a Consumer Reports post on how to disable smart TV tracking from the five leading brands, LG, Samsung, Sony, TCL Roku sets, and Vizio, the five leading U.S. TV brands, in this post, How to Turn Off Smart TV Snooping Features.  So, enjoy!

I understand proper configuration is by no means a perfect solution– and relies on the good faith of the smart TV producer (including its software supplier) either to allow such an option– and to be truthful about whether the tracking facilities are indeed switched off.

The alternative: find a new (or ‘pre-owned’) dumb TV. Or, as my mother might recommend: abandon the boob tube entirely.

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  1. John

    Or do what I did when installing a new smart TV that insisted on an internet connection during set up and simply would not complete the setup without it: turn on the hot spot feature on your phone, point the TV to that, complete the setup, and turn off the hot spot feature again, and simply never allow the TV access to the internet again – after all for most users it’s a simple display unit for whatever cable TV tuner box they have, and there’s zero reason for the TV to have any internet access ever.

    1. kevin

      I dunno. 55 million US Netflix subscribers (and probably many sharing accounts) plus amazon prime, hulu, etc. I’m not sure its accurate to declare most users have no need for their TV to access the internet anymore

      1. polecat

        Go old-school. Ditch the streaming, and embrace the disc ! Dial down that urge towards instant gratification.

        Or maybe, dare I say, nuke the ‘idiocracy tube’ from the orbit of your living space .. it’s the only way to be sure.

      2. Jim A.

        Of course Netflix and/or Hulu etc already knows what you are streaming from them and they are sharing that information with whomever they choose. So giving that knowledge to the TV manufacturer as well probably doesn’t make that much difference.

        1. Lord Koos

          Yes but the mfg can also sell that data, when you tend to watch, etc. Also there have been some TVs that can listen to the room.

          1. The Rev Kev

            And some with cameras and facial recognition software too. I wish that I was joking.

    2. Stephen Gardner

      And if you don’t have a smart phone or don’t have hot spot enabled because it is costly, you can always deny the TV access to your wifi, either by blocking its MAC address or by changing the key your TV uses to access the wifi. Of, course if it is wired you can unplug the ethernet cable.

  2. TimH

    The problem is that the TV is always on, so the built in wifi could sit there slowly brute forcing the wifi networks around it. So blocking at your WAN gateway etc etc only works if the TV is being nice.

    Curious, can anyone state a specific law sentence that makes illegal an appliance owned by you breaking the password to a wifi router owned by you?

    1. taunger

      On breaking wifi router – one theory might be that it is not the TV, which is owned by you, but rather software licensed to end user and owned by corp that does the breaking. In that case, if license does not include breaking of wifi, corp is outside licensed activity, and would be unlawful activity.

  3. JCC

    Beside disabling the Samba software, you could also add your own wifi router between the cable-supplied router and the rest of your systems. Then just block any device you don’t want connected to the ‘net from getting an ip address at your own router. Easy to do, takes about 1 minute.

    Turning it on when you are desperate for a netflix fix, or whatever, can done temporarily, another whole minute.

    There are lots of solutions to reduce or (nearly) eliminate this ever-present tracking. Admittedly there is a learning curve involved but it’s not as steep or as long as many seem to think it is… no harder than learning to run your shiny new washing machine or driving your shiny new car.

    1. PKMKII

      Even if you don’t have a smart TV, you should get your own WiFi router. The ones from the cable company are typically garbage, and then you don’t have to pay another monthly fee to those parasites.

      1. ambrit

        Or, do as we do here Down South (North American Version.) Hook everything up with hard cable and ditch the mobile devices altogether. A dumbphone is the closest to ‘connectedness’ we get. That and a Farraday cage pouch.

  4. JohnnyGL

    Let’s not forget how quickly Wikileaks’ Vault 7 release from CIA docs disappeared from everyone’s radar.

    The only thing news reports seemed to mention was Smart TV spying/recording.

    1. hunkerdown

      Of course, the MSM were busy selling Russiagate. To report on the Marble framework would have dissolved their entire narrative and their future ability to sell war based on complicated computer stuff, in a deluge of reasonable doubt.

  5. jake

    The only reliable way is to keep the set off the internet — don’t connect it to a modem and password protect any home wifi networks so it can’t get in through the backdoor. It *could* try to hack the password, as suggested above, but that would take more computing power than these sets are likely to have at hand, and would doubtless be a crime. In any case, disabling wifi when not in use is sensible, for protecting both data and (though the research is far from conclusive) health.

    Of course, if the internet is your TV provider, then your ISP already knows what you’re watching, unless you’re using a VPN.

  6. anon48

    “In any case, disabling wifi when not in use is sensible, for protecting both data and (though the research is far from conclusive) health.”

    Good point…thanks.

    Also thanks to JLS for the tip on disabling tracking by the TVs.

  7. Dean

    It’s not just smart tv’s. Remember the ‘wardrobe malfunction from the superbowl years ago? Tivo came out and said it was the most replayed and rewatched event to date in their company’s history. The only way they could make that claim is if the viewing habits were transmitted back to the company. Cable top boxes are connected to the internet too. While maybe not as wide in scope as a smart tv, cable top boxes also track viewing habits and send their data home.

    1. JeffC

      Escaping the reporting of viewing habits is not so easy anymore.

      My last couple of set-top cable boxes (Spectrum/Brighthouse) needed the internet to reboot after a power failure. And there was no way to deny them internet connections, because they connected to it via the TV cable that brought in the TV signals. They didn’t use my router at all.

      My new cable setup (Spectrum/Charter) has no “cable box” but provides TV through a Roku app over the internet. The app may as well have been called E.T. as it no doubt phones home with my viewing log.

      The only headway I’ve made against the surveillance monster is denying my TV and Roku the ability to see and potentially report on the other devices on my home network. But this was not a simple matter, as it required replacing my router’s OS with the open-source dd-wrt router OS (and using wifi rather than cabled ethernet for connecting the Roku and TV). dd-wrt is great and offers a serious boatload of advanced features, but the documentation is poor and comprises many online writups produced over many years. They are typically undated,so it is a huge pain to guess what is still applicable and what is not, as dd-wrt has been evolving for over a decade.

    2. Grebo

      Anything you hook up to your network can be doing this sort of thing. Look out especially for things that are ‘cloud’ enabled or offer you remote access through an ‘app’.

      I bought a cheap Chinese IP security camera. Weirdly, it downloaded 50MB of something every two hours. I am on a mobile connection so in the 4 days it took me to realise it cost me more in bandwidth than I paid for the damned thing.

      If you buy a net gadget disconnect your internet before you plug it in then block it at your firewall before you reconnect.

  8. Lord Koos

    Non-smart TVs are easy to find second-hand on craigslist. We’re using a 32″ screen that is over 10 years old and it still works perfectly. Smart people should shop for dumb devices.

    1. polecat

      A secondary plus is the fresnel lens that separates the viewer from the TV tube proper … which might be of use in certain direct solar applications e.i. steam generation, should one find the need down in the careening dystopic future.

  9. Brooklin Bridge

    First, how ironic that Edward J Markey is on record siging a petition to revoke Julian Assange’s asylum – June 28, 2018: ( do a page search on “Julian Assange”)
    And now, our fervent Massachusetts Vichy Patriot Senator wants to protect our privacy????? That privacy that a lot fewer people would even know about if it were not for Julian Assange?

    Over the last 10 years, I’ve read enough articles about one privacy breach after another to assume that our homes, at least potentially, have more prying eyes and ears than a Hollywood screen set after an “Action!” call. For example, if you have a digital broadcasting electric meter, it’s utterly amazing -apparently- what the utility company can ferret out about your in home activities, where you are, what you are doing and so on.

    Household routers are Swiss Cheese per order of our Homeland Patriot agencies, TV’s, set top boxes, (and probably anything connected to the internet such as “smart” toasters and so on) may record what you say, not just what you watch. If you have connected thermostats, you may find yourself participating in your utility’s energy conservation efforts without even knowing about it (and continuing to pay more or less the same bills).

    What Greenwald, Assange, Snowden, et al., have made most clear about technology, is that if it can be abused, it probably is being abused.

  10. Brooklin Bridge

    BTW, one still CAN buy a non smart TV (or at least one that doesn’t have the label “smart” on it). I know, because I recently bought one and indeed, there were no requests for privacy agreements. I sort of go through the motions because I’m fully aware that short of being highly trained or knowledgeable in multiple domains – and even then, privacy has largely become either an illusion or an accident of circumstance. And I’m not alone and will only make so much of a fuss as each layer of privacy is stripped away for someone’s “must have” (a smart phone or whatever).

    Yes, the water’s ok, but that’s largely due to my own ignorance of what really goes on and what’s coming to a theater (very) near me – soon, not because venture capitalists and politicians, and international corporations have suddenly developed a conscience or scruples.

  11. Utah

    I keep my smart TV unplugged when not in use. Its older so it doesn’t have a microphone or camera, but it does use the wifi. I also have never signed in to the Samsung app that came with it. I don’t know if that’ll protect me, but netflix already sells my data I am sure, and that’s all my smart TV would get from me.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Most routers today have a wifi access point built in. I don’t know how easy it is to get around passwords – assuming they have been set – but not everyone even puts a password on the wifi so you don’t necessarily have to physically plug the CAT-5 drop into your tv to be “connected”.

  12. BlueMoose

    I’m curious what everyone is watching that justifies even owning a tv. And also, what are you watching that you would not want anyone to be aware of? Is it impossible to live in the US without television? There are things called books that some people have found can provide hours of entertainment and at times can even be educational (currently reading Crime and Punishment).

    Besides the costs (tv, subscription, time) why would anyone subject themselves to the propaganda? I hope this isn’t coming across as preachy, but I’d challenge and encourage everyone to give it up for 6 months and see how you feel. Besides, you can keep up with the world here at NC!

    1. Lord Koos

      We have no cable, and no antenna – our TV is essentially just a monitor for watching movies, stuff on youtube, etc. We don’t stream movies.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      The old narrow narrow minded, If you have nothing to hide, who needs privacy? (Heave Ho to the Fourth), argument, eh? Most around here don’t buy it. What if your employer learns you watch Bernie Sanders speeches, or Donald Trump speeches and fires your sorry derrière (without telling you why – of course). Privacy is a worthy if not critical part of even a moderately enlightened form of government..

      1. BlueMoose

        I don’t disagree that privacy is important. TV is not. If your boss fired you for the reason you mentioned, he is probably doing you a favor. Why would you want to work for such a person?

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          How brave of you to assert your principles at the expense of another’s job!

          And as for books, I don’t enjoy the kind that define for others what’s permissible activity (reading) and what’s not (tv).

          1. perpetualWAR

            I don’t think BlueMoose defined that Books was mandatory. He/she simply suggested that Books might be a simple solution to stop being tracked.

            Me thinks thy protests too much!

          2. BlueMoose

            Sorry that we got off on the wrong foot BB. Perhaps you could enlighten me as to what you find so interesting on the tv other than Bernie’s speeches? I am old and out of touch, so it might be that the format has changed and it is much better than it was 10 years ago.

            TV could have been used for a much more noble purpose, but it seems like everthing else to have followed the path to crapification. Please list 3 shows that you like.

            And why would you want to work at a sh*t job where the boss monitors your tv viewing habits?

  13. MikeW_CA

    This is great, but I’d much rather see them investigate how we can enforce the laws against the tsunami of scammers who disregard the Do Not Call list and falsify Caller ID.

    1. Lord Koos

      Amen to that. I now get about 10 sales calls per week, the numbers are spoofed as if coming from my local area code. I’ve stopped answering the phone if I don’t recognize the number.

  14. Inode_buddha

    Why would I want a TV? I’m not gonna pay someone to lie to me, I can get that for FREE

    1. BlueMoose

      I always thought that one should get paid for watching tv. Perhaps we could merge this idea with some type of UBI scheme where the more you watch, the higher your monthly Walmart voucher would be.

      1. perpetualWAR

        Yes! My TV-watching protests began when the service changed to digital, requiring the purchase of new equipment. Umm, no. I’m not paying for new equipment nor am I paying for a service to usher in TV which is chock-full of advertising. If they want me to watch TV that I pay for, then advertising should not be included!

  15. sd

    Maybe it’s time to start going to the theater again. Just unplug the box and call it a day. I’m typing on a dying iPad and have pretty much made up my mind not to replace it.

  16. perpetualWAR

    Scary how many comments about smart TVs! Why not just not allow them access to your home? Ever since they changed from analog to digital TV, I have revolted and determined I was not going to pay for a service that used to be free. TV has not stopped advertising, so all of you are allowing these people to make you pay to watch their advertising. Insane? I think so.

  17. albert

    In general, one should avoid using any device that connects to the Internet, except your computer. Not only can Internet of Things devices spy on you, but many thousands become ‘bots’ for hackers, where they send out Denial of Service messages that can overcome servers. Also note that many DVD players have Internet capabilities which allow you to view movies and TV shows from most of the major players like Netflix, Amazon, etc..

    I saw and ad for Samsungs new refrigerator, with built in ‘shopping list’, Internet-connected of course. Very convenient:) How many folks will also use it for other, more personal things?

    If I could afford it, I’d have another connection for wifi, and stay on my wired connection, alone.

    Computer security is complicated, time consuming, and, in the end, not totally secure. We can only do the best we can, and pray it’s good enough. Avoiding the IoT is simple. Do it.
    . .. . .. — ….

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