Our Smart TVs Are Watching Us

Chances are pretty good you own a “Smart TV and there are some things you should know about how “smart” it is.

It’s not unusual for many of us to think that the only difference between regular old TVs and Smart TVs is a connection to the Internet. That’s partially true. It’s also true that Internet connectivity makes our newfangled TVs just as vulnerable to being exploited by criminals as any other device that we connect to the Internet, such as a computer, streaming device, gaming console, or mobile phone.

It’s important – really important – to at least consider two things:

  • Check and verify privacy settings on mobile phones, tablets, streaming devices, gaming consoles, computers, and also Smart TVs, which are most commonly overlooked.
  • Do our best to keep the software up-to-date on Smart TVs, too, and minimize our exposure to larger, and often preventable, risks.

Even back in 2016, Jessica Rich, the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection did her best to try and warn us that “Smart TVs are testing the privacy expectations that consumers developed in the era of traditional television.”

Now it’s almost 2020 and the FBI is getting involved in trying to spread awareness about the risk that comes along with owning Smart TVs because we won’t find any of this important information in the owners’ manuals:

“Beyond the risk that your TV manufacturer and app developers may be listening and watching you, that television can also be a gateway for hackers to come into your home. A bad cyber actor may not be able to access your locked-down computer directly, but it is possible that your unsecured TV can give him or her an easy way in the backdoor through your router.”

Back in March of 2017, it was widely published that Smart TVs have become a new tool for intelligence agencies and criminals alike to use in potentially nefarious ways.

That’s not awesome news but there’s still an unlikelihood that most everyday people will be compromised in that way. There’s a reasonable amount of salt to be taken with the notion that we’re constantly being spied on. Not unplausible, but not imminent.

However, what’s real and worth most of us being concerned about is that Smart TV manufacturers are watching us on the regular, collecting intelligence about what we’re watching, targeting us with more ads based on more than just what we watch. It’s been proven that they use the cameras and microphones embedded in our Smart TVs to collect and sell real intelligence on how we live, what we do, what we say, and more. It’s so bad that when they occasionally get caught they practically admit that it’s easier (and cheaper) for them to ask for forgiveness than permission.

It’s important to listen to some of the suggestions the FBI makes, such as making time to read the fine print in each TV manufacturer’s privacy policy to better understand what information each kind of Smart TV is collecting and sharing with/selling to others. It’s also important to make sure the software on Smart TVs stays up-to-date to help minimize our risks of being spied on by criminals who would attempt to mess with us. It’s important and always a good idea to keep our devices’ software up-to-date in order to minimize our risks to those kinds of things, regardless of what kind or type of device we’re talking about.

However, if we already have or plan on purchasing a Smart TV, here are some helpful tips to help reclaim our privacy (outside of choosing not to bring these devices into our homes and/or not connecting them to the Internet):

Samsung

Have a Smart TV made by Samsung? Samsung models are somewhat more complex than others, settings-wise, so let’s start with them.

We can turn off voice recording in the settings via Home > Settings > System > Expert Settings > Voice Interaction. Then, choose OFF.

Have an older model? Try going to Settings > Smart Features > Voice Recognition > and change this setting to OFF.

Be advised that back in 2015, Samsung admitted that:

“if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.”

Keep in mind that the microphones on most Smart TVs are almost always ON by default so they can listen for voice commands. The built-in cameras are usually enabled for access by default, too. Tinkering around in our settings to turn these capabilities off is worthwhile, especially if we don’t plan on ever using them.

And again, it’s important and worthwhile to view and either “Agree” or “Disagree” with manufacturer policies for things they call Viewing Information Services, Voice Recognition Services, and Nuance Voice Recognition and Privacy Notices. Try going to Settings > Support > Terms & Policies and opt out of these policies by choosing DISAGREE if you still value your privacy.

Some Smart TVs are capable of gesture control and facial recognition to authenticate and access your Samsung account. If we wish, we can turn this OFF in the settings of our Samsung Account. If that proves to be too much of a hassle, we can also just cover the camera on the Smart TV with a piece of opaque tape.

Last, but not least, Samsung collects information on what we watch, how often, how long, and more, and sells/shares that information with advertising companies who buy it to sell ads from other companies to target us for their own, separate marketing goals. If we’d like to disable this activity you can navigate to Menu > Smart Hub > Terms and Policy > SyncPlus and Marketing > and set SyncPlus to DISABLE.

Depending on our setup, here’s Samsung’s guidance for how we can keep the software on these devices up-to-date: https://www.samsung.com/us/support/answer/ANS00062224/

Sony

If we have one of these, we can opt out of their data collection on us by going to Home > Settings > TV – About > Legal information > View Privacy Policy and DISAGREE to prevent the Smart TV from collecting and sharing information about us with Sony. Some older models have a slightly different menu setting. If this applies to you, choose DISABLE UPLOAD DATA

Here’s Sony’s guidance on how to update the software on their Smart TVs: https://www.sony.com/electronics/support/articles/00028577

LG

LG wants to collect information on us, too, but the settings for this seem to be designed to be misleading, which can make it a bit trickier for us everyday folks to find and make sense of.

Go to Settings > General > About This TV > User Agreements

Then OPT OUT of all the following:

  • Viewing Information
  • Personal Advertising
  • Voice Information (opting out of this disables the microphone for voice control)

Have an older model? Try going to Settings > Options > LivePlus and set this to OFF. Some of these older models sometimes call this COLLECTION OF WATCHING INFO. Turn that OFF.

If you’ve read this far, you’re awesome for making time and attention to learn all of this. You deserve to be made aware of this caveat: back in 2013, LG got caught collecting and sending/selling this personal data whether or not these settings were set to ON or OFF. LG claims to have since delivered a software update that “fixes” this. We do what we can do and never, ever, ever quit.

Here’s LG’s advice for how to update the software on our Smart TV: https://www.lg.com/us/support/help-library/updating-firmware-tv-CT10000018-1430510575535

Vizio

Have one of these Smart TVs? Improve your privacy via Menu > Settings > Smart Interactivity and/or Automated Content Recognition. Turn these OFF.

Some models may have these settings in System > Reset & Admin > Smart Interactivity or Menu > System > Reset & Admin > Viewing Data. Turn these to OFF.

When Vizio got caught doing the same thing as all the others in February 2017, they were fined $2.2 million by the Federal Trade Commission for collecting user information without consent and also for sending this sensitive and private information in the clear, which put everyday folks at even greater risk of otherwise preventable threats like identity theft or worse.

Here’s what they did in regular English:

Without anyone’s consent,Vizio captured and recorded everything everyone was watching on their Smart TVs. Yes, they recorded everything we watched, played, or interacted with in any way on our screens. They attempted to build a massive recorded viewing history of everything everyone who bought their Smart TVs ever watched and/or did with the device, including video games, DVDs, etc.

Here’s a nice Tom’s Guide for keeping our software up-to-date on a Vizio Smart TV: https://www.tomsguide.com/us/how-to-update-your-vizio-tv,review-5157.html

Streaming Devices and Services

Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast

If we’re using an Amazon Fire TV or a Chromecast, these also collect information about us. We can opt-out of collection for Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV via Settings > System > Internet Based Ads. Set this to OFF.

Follow Amazon’s steps for keeping a Fire TV’s software up-to-date: https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=201497590

According to Google, Chromecasts automagically keep themselves up-to-date: https://support.google.com/chromecast/answer/6292664?hl=en

Apple TV

As of this writing, Apple TV isn’t collecting information about us. The apps that we might install and use on the device, however, may or may not.

Here’s how to update the software on an Apple TV: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202716

Roku

This device doesn’t have a ton of options for limiting tracking but we can do this: from the Roku’s home screen, choose Settings > Privacy > Advertising.

Check Limit Ad Tracking. That’s as much as we can do there.

Roku claims its devices also automagically stay up-to-date but here’s steps to do it manually, just in case: https://support.roku.com/article/208755668-how-do-i-update-the-software-on-my-roku-streaming-device-

Streaming Services

Depending on what streaming service(s) we use, like Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix, and any of the various network channels, these all collect information about what we view, etc. While we’re able to remove specific items, one-by-one, from our viewing history, which might affect the way those services recommend shows and movies to watch, they’re still collecting much more information about our habits, whether we like it or not. Using them means we consent by default.

Last But Not Least

Here’s some straight talk: there’s no way to perfectly or practically eliminate 100% of the efforts of all the people and organizations working so hard to collect and sell personal information about us. It’s important to our liberty and the future of social progress, however, to be aware of what surveillance means, what data is being collected about us, what it’s potentially being used for, and by who. This isn’t always easy or even possible without better privacy and data protection laws in the US but, gratefully, that is changing – but not fast enough.

Whenever it makes pragmatic sense, we want to know that if our data is being collected and shared that it’s at least being done in a competent and secure way, using industry standard encryption methods and tools to make it harder for criminals who’d otherwise be able to easily access and exploit it. And anytime we’re able to, use settings that anonymize the information being collected about us (typically labeled as “Limit Ad Tracking”) to help keep those risks to a minimum.

Please share this with family and friends to help them take back their privacy, too.

Thanks for reading.

The awesome animated gif used in this post is called Channel Surfing by Sam Burton