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 “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.