Smart TV Makers Will Soon Make More Money Off Your Viewing Habits Than The TV Itself

from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong dept

"Smart" televisions have long been the poster child for the abysmal privacy and security standards inherent in the "internet of things" space. Such televisions have been routinely found to have the security and privacy standards of damp cardboard, making the data they collect delicious targets for hackers and intelligence agencies alike.

At the same time these companies have failed repeatedly to secure (or sometimes even encrypt) consumer data, their data collection revenue is positively exploding. Vizio, for example, recently noted that it made $38.4 million in one quarter just from tracking and monetizing consumer viewing and usage data. It made $48.2 million on hardware (both TVs, soundbars, and other products) in that same period, and that gap (if not already closed) is quickly closing:

"Its device business (the part that sells TVs, sound bars and the like) had a gross profit of $48.2 million in the same period, up from $32.5 million last year. While the hardware business has significantly more revenue, profits from data and advertising spiked 152 percent from last year, and are quickly catching up."

The problem researchers keep pointing out is not enough of that revenue is being put back into device security research and privacy standards, which is why Vizio, like most "smart" TV manufacturers, has been repeatedly caught in privacy scandals. Like that time it had to shell out $2.2 million to the FTC and NJ AG for failing to inform consumers this data was even being collected. By the time consumers got their share of that settlement, it wound up being about $20 per person. And it's not really clear anything would have happened at all if not for a 2015 ProPublica investigation into Vizio's lack of transparency.

The problem of course is that regulators, when they do bother to act, act half a decade after the fact, and only if a journalist exposes the problem first. Consumers then get a tiny pittance. And it shouldn't be too hard to understand how a $2.2 million fine -- for a company pulling down $38.4 million every three months off of consumer data alone -- probably isn't going to be an effective deterrent against future privacy abuses. It's viewed as just a light gnat on the nose and the cost of doing business.

Consumers do have a bit of control. They can disable a set's WiFi features entirely, even though in many instances doing so can disable core set functionality in obnoxious and unforeseen ways. Ideally I'd love to be able to buy a "dumb" TV that's just a great display with HDMI ports and no "smart" internals, but because consumer data is now so profitable, most TV vendors no longer even sell such an option.

It's also worth remembering that your smart TV is just one in a long line of systems collecting and monetizing your data, including the streaming hardware you're using (Roku, etc.), your ISP, any additional internet of things devices you've connected to your network, and even your energy company. While folks intent on downplaying modern privacy abuses often like to pretend this is the age of consumer empowerment, it's not really possible for consumers to "opt out" of data collection and monetization at the scale it's now occurring. Even with a lot of elbow grease, technical innovation, and external help.

Organizations like Consumer Reports have been pushing hard for improved efforts to warn consumers about potential privacy abuses at the point of sale, including them in product reviews and even on product packaging. And while their "open source" efforts on this front are really interesting, we're a long way away from this kind of transparency being the norm.

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Filed Under: data, privacy, smart tvs
Companies: vizio


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  1. icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 3:50am

    Uh oh…

    It's also worth remembering that your smart TV is just one in a long line of systems collecting and monetizing your data, including the streaming hardware you're using (Roku, etc.)

    Welp, I guess hooking up a Roku to a dumb TV has its own privacy problems as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 7:07am

    Internet required

    All of these smart TVs require internet access to be privacy problems. No internet access, no problem.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    MindParadox (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 7:09am

    Re: Internet required

    It's only a matter of time before the first internet required TV comes out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Glen, 17 May 2021 @ 7:11am

    Re: Re: Internet required

    I'm REALLY not looking forward to this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Nick-B, 17 May 2021 @ 7:50am

    I would LOVE to have a TV that doesn't take longer to turn on than my Windows computer. With the large number of streaming capable devices, why would anyone use built-in TV services when they can get a device capable of downloading and customizing the installed apps.

    We have a decade-old TV that is nice (turns on slowly though), and has a built-in youtube app. It hasn't worked for 8 of those years, because it can't be updated and youtube swiftly updated their APIs to break the app. But there it sits on our menu, taunting us.

    Oh, and don't get me started on the cheap FireTV I bought, before discovering the reason it was cheap was because it slathers ads for amazon crap all over the home screen (that it launches into, rather than the HDMI input it was last left on).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Chris-Mouse (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 7:54am

    Re: Internet required

    All of these smart TVs require internet access to be privacy problems. No internet access, no problem.

    No TV, no problem. It's an even cheaper solution. It's been years since I've seen anything on TV worth my time to watch, so I don't miss it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 7:56am

    Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 7:57am

    Dumb tv

    I really want a television that is just a monitor: no "smarts", no tuner, no internet connection. Just a source select, volume, and picture adjustments. Everything else can come from an attached cable box, game system, Roku, etc.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anon, 17 May 2021 @ 8:03am

    Re: Re: Internet required

    My cable provider knows what I watch, and has provided me with a box that records shows, and also allows Netflix, Prime, and assorted other services. I see no need to let my TV track this too. Plus, if I'm using my old PC hooked up to the TV, then only my VLC player knows what I'm watching; and my Blu-ray doesn't have internet access either, so it can't tell on me when i watch one of my 600 DVDs. So I will allow the least number of trackers I can get away with.

    I agree, there's very little I watch. I see ads for shows all the time, and watch virtually nothing but news and sports in real time. Nothing much appeals to me - maybe I'm burning out, there's only so many original plots in a flood of redundant shows. (My wife gets mad when I figure out maybe 1/3 the way into a show whodunnit or what the embarrassing outcome of a comedy setup is going to be) I can see the day coming when I can cut out cable completely and still have the same services.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 8:15am

    never saw the vizio money

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    PaulT (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 8:27am

    Re: Re: Internet required

    " It's been years since I've seen anything on TV worth my time to watch, so I don't miss it."

    Good for you. Always nice to know that someone will always react to an industry problem with "I don't personally use that product". That's always so helpful...

    Meanwhile, you'd be even more protected if you didn't use electricity, while the privacy issue concerned here (which expands way beyond broadcast TV) will still exist for anyone who has it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    united9198 (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 9:23am

    Tip Of The Iceberg

    Most people get upset at the thought of a tracking device in their vaccine but give little or no thought to how much their smart tv or motor vehicle are tracking their every move. Cars might be the worst, but yet few people even know that they are providing tons of free data that the car companies are selling. You don't need the internet to be tracked in your car.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 9:55am

    Re: Internet required

    Low cost, low-bandwidth (ie, regular old 4g) wholesale mobile internet costs surprisingly little -- a buck or two a month at a big enough scale. When it becomes profitable enough, your "smart" tv will come with its own mobile internet connection that will phone home the valuable stuff (to them) even if you don't want to provide it your connection.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonmylous, 17 May 2021 @ 10:10am

    Modern problems require modern solutions

    They can enjoy knowing my TV is plugged into a PC 24/7 I guess. Whether I use a browser to watch streaming, or watch my own library, all they'll see is feed from a GPU. Yeah yeah, Google, YouTube, etc are watching, I know. But one less spy in my life is still one less spy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    PaulT (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 10:51am

    Re: Tip Of The Iceberg

    "Most people get upset at the thought of a tracking device in their vaccine"

    ...and use the tracking device they carry in their pocket to complain about it. This is why those people don't need to be taken seriously.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 11:04am

    Re:

    "Just because I have nothing to hide, doesn't mean I don't have a few things I'm ashamed of" -- Marc Meron

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 11:05am

    Re: Re: Internet required

    It's only a matter of time before the first internet required TV comes out.

    You've gotta update the software, right? Otherwise, someone could drive by your house and broadcast a signal to exploit some RF decoder bug (the TV's probably scanning to update its channel map even if you don't watch broadcast signals), and collect all your data anyway.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 11:16am

    Re: Dumb tv

    Karl asked for the same:

    Ideally I'd love to be able to buy a "dumb" TV that's just a great display with HDMI ports and no "smart" internals

    These do exist: they're called commercial signage displays. Made in large sizes by Samsung, LG, and others. They'll likely have to be ordered, maybe online, but they're not in any way rare. More expensive than TVs, of course, but not absurdly so.

    One can also just use computer monitors. They're easy enough to find up to 30-40 inch diagonal sizes. Not quite as big as TVs nowadays, though I remember the days when a 40-incher was a "big-screen" TV, owned mostly by rich "home theater" people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 11:18am

    If they want to give me a 100" tv and "monitor" my habits, go ahead.

    I will be accidentally de-soldering the built-in mic and camera that Vizeo has shipped with every single TV and actively uses to spy on people since 2017 though.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    BernardoVerda (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 12:27pm

    Re: Re:

    Just because you have nothing to hide, doesn't mean you don't have a few things that other parties might exploit to your disadvantage, for their benefit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    BernardoVerda (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 12:34pm

    Re: Modern problems require modern solutions

    Does that actually mean they can't tell what you're watching, though?

    For example, couldn't the same technologies used to scan for copyright "infringement" in other contexts, could be incorporated to compile a record of what you've been watching?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 1:25pm

    Re: Re: Re: Internet required

    " (My wife gets mad when I figure out maybe 1/3 the way into a show whodunnit "

    The answer is always "oh I've seen that actor before - he/she definitely did it."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 1:27pm

    Re: Re: Internet required

    So why's your tv covered in tinfoil?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    ECA (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 1:56pm

    AND?

    Does any of this appear in the Paperwork?
    If not, then you can sue, or should be able to.

    Roku, did/does give an option to not sned data..

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 May 2021 @ 3:50pm

    Re: Re: Modern problems require modern solutions

    Who's "they"? Streaming providers (including cable TV providers, unless you're still analog) can certainly tell exactly who is watching what, when. More than that, they know whenever you pause, rewind, try and fail to skip ads, etc. At least, I'm not aware of any anonymous "streaming services", though youtube-dl can download public videos over Tor, from Youtube and some other sites.

    For example, couldn't the same technologies used to scan for copyright "infringement" in other contexts, could be incorporated to compile a record of what you've been watching?

    If I'm understanding you correctly, that's what youhavedownloaded.com was. There's also the low-tech method of looking at dark houses/apartments at night, and watching the light bouncing off walls. It's easily done "by hand" for live signals—flick through the channels until your own light pattern matches theirs—but I imagine a computer could compile a huge database of signatures to recognize streaming shows. Honestly, I'm surprised there hasn't been a scandal in which some TV rating company was caught doing exactly that. (WTF does Neilsen do these days?)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 5:12pm

    Re:

    Said the person posting anonymously...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 5:15pm

    'Yeah... we'll... get right on that... later...'

    No worries, I'm sure the same politicians who are constantly ragging on social media companies over their privacy policies and collection/usage of user data will be all over this, I mean it's not like they're just dragging social media companies through the coals and just using user privacy as an excuse or anything...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 5:34pm

    Would someone just like to explain to the Republicans that this means we can buy the titles of the 'films' they've been watching in their bedrooms?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    sumgai (profile), 17 May 2021 @ 6:56pm

    Re: Re: Re: Modern problems require modern solutions

    WTF does Neilsen do these days?)

    Jack Shitt. I'm told he's an extremely well-known personality these days.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. identicon
    ryuugami, 17 May 2021 @ 10:15pm

    Re: Modern problems require modern solutions

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    ryuugami, 17 May 2021 @ 10:20pm

    Re:

    Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.

    I notice you didn't post a link to the live feed of the cameras you no doubt have set in all the rooms in your home (including bedrooms and bathrooms), and the body cameras on you and your family. Or do you have something to hide?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 18 May 2021 @ 3:55am

    Re:

    If anything would get them to actually care about customer privacy...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Tunerless TV, 18 May 2021 @ 5:39am

    Re: Dumb tv

    " no tuner"

    Then you don't want a TV, the tuner is required for something to count as a TV. i.e. no tuner, no TV.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. identicon
    Naughty Autie, 18 May 2021 @ 7:55am

    I just hope to God that Google never starts selling TVs. I know for a fact that they sell your details down the river to anybody who is willing to pay for them, which includes fraudsters.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. icon
    PaulT (profile), 18 May 2021 @ 1:56pm

    Re:

    The funny thing about this comment is that you both believe that Google is worse than what's being done here, and that they have no involvement in what's already being done.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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