Are Your Smart Devices Spying On You?

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Video Transcript

Ken: Welcome back to Good Day on this Thursday morning, always happy to welcome our buddy back here, Ryan Eldridge with Nerds on Call. And this is a little spooky what say was going on here, right?

Ryan: It is and it’s kind of… What happened was a few weeks ago Vizio, major TV manufacturer, got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission, sued for 2.2 million dollars because they were spying on people watching their televisions.

Ken: Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. They were actually…there’s like a camera in the TV where they can watch you on your couch?

Ryan: Well not exactly, but…

Ken: Okay, because that’s cool.

Ryan: …there are other things in your home that are watching you too, but we’ll get into that here in a second. But what Vizio got in trouble for was essentially they were taking data, viewer data, and linking it to the ISP that the TV was connected to. So they were watching not only what you were doing on television, but they were also seeing what you were doing while you were online. And so for example, if you saw a commercial online of “Supergirl”, and you were like, “Oh, I kinda wanna see that show,” and then you watch it on the television, they’d report that back to advertisers and say, “Hey, check out what this guy’s doing. [inaudible 00:00:56] make sense? Eleven million people over the course of five years they were watching people, and they got in trouble. Here’s the problem, they didn’t inform customers what they were doing. When you plugged in the TV to set it up, they give you a quick splash screen that only lasts for 30 seconds that said that “Smart Interaction” is enabled by default. That was it. That was all your information. And so they didn’t explain what they were doing, they didn’t explain what the…information they were collecting, and they didn’t give you really a chance to opt out. After that 30 seconds, that splash screen went away and you couldn’t get back to it.

Ken: Really? 

Ryan: Yeah, isn’t that crazy? 

Ken: Sneaky.

Ryan: Vizio’s not the only one though. Samsung got in trouble just a few years ago because they were recording anything you 
said while you were in the room…

Ken: What?

Ryan: …near the television. So they had a voice prompt of like…so you could say, “Hey Samsung, turn on Channel 7,” or whatever. Well they were recording all that stuff and they were reporting that back to advertisers. Kinda crazy. So if you have an Xbox One with a Kinect, or if you’ve got an Amazon Echo in your home…

Ken: Bethany has one, yep.

Ryan: …or if you’ve got a Google Home, these…all these products are listening all the time. They’re always on there waiting for you to say, “Hey Google Home, tell me how to get to the store.”

Ken: Yeah.

Ryan: So what you wanna do is never plan a crime in front of your Amazon Echo because it’s recording you.

Ken: That’s a good point.

Ryan: That kinda makes sense?

Ken: That’s a good point.

Ryan: Don’t plan a crime, period.

Ken: Yeah, let’s just get back on [inaudible 00:02:14].

Ryan: So one of the ways you can protect yourself is you can just disconnect it from the Internet, but then you loose all that cool functionality. And so here’s some cool ways to fix it. If you’ve got a Vizio TV, go and press the “Menu” button on your television, select “System”, select “Reset Admin”, highlight “Smart Interactivity”, and then just turn that off, and that Vizio will stop tracking you. If you got a TV that was built before 2011 or after 2016, it’s off by default. But within that window, four or five years, you’re in trouble. If you’re on a Samsung, you can disable that voice recognition feature so it’ll stop recording you. But keep in mind, every time you’re on the Internet, all of your ISPs, your Facebook, everybody, they’re looking at where you’re going and what you’re doing. So you’re never really gonna get away from this kind of thing. So always check out your terms of service, that thing we never read, and find out what they’re tracking.

Ken: Wow. Always good stuff every time we see you, Ryan. Thank you so much, buddy. Appreciate it. Bethany, back to you.

Bethany: Creepy.

Ken: Yes.

Bethany: Very, very creepy. Thanks, guys.

Earlier this month, Vizio agreed to pay $2.2 million in penalties to settle a lawsuit brought by the FTC for tracking its customer’s viewing habits without their consent. Are you concerned that your Smart TV is keeping tabs on you?

What was Vizio doing that got it in hot water with the FTC?

They were collecting data about viewing habits of customers. By linking to customer’s ISP it allowed marketers to link activity on other devices in their home. For example, did someone watch a show after seeing an ad for it online? They then would be able to sell that targeted advertising data. None of that is illegal, it’s typical marketing behaviors. The problem is that Vizio enabled the tracking by default and didn’t inform consumers it was collecting the data; they didn’t offer any explanation of what it was collecting and they didn’t make it easy enough to opt out. They monitored viewing habits of more than 11 million TVs without consent over 2 years!

Is Vizio unique in this kind of tracking?

Nope. In 2015, Samsung’s privacy policy allowed it to record and share audio recordings from its Voice Recognition feature with advertisers. But Samsung provided more obvious disclosures about the information it was collecting and sharing.

I’ve heard concerns about voice-recognition devices “listening” to conversations. Is that a thing your Smart TV could be doing?

Voice-recognition devices are always listening for their activation prompt. These devices include: Xbox Kinect and Smart Home assistants like Google Home & Amazon Echo. When voice activation initiates, the recorded audio is sent to a 3rd party server to be translated/”understood”. Theoretically, those recordings could be stored or maintained (though unlikely), so a takeaway from this is don’t discuss a crime in the vicinity of a voice activated device!

Can you stop a Smart TV from monitoring your habits and reporting back information about you?

Yes and no. You could disconnect your SmartTV from the Internet but then you’ll lose your access to integrated features like Netflix streaming, surfing the Web, etc. But, you can activate privacy settings (in most cases) which will limit some of the functions in exchange for a little more privacy when you aren’t using the device.

What about Vizio owners concerned about their TVs?

For TVs from 2011 & earlier, Vizio has already disabled tracking. If you have a VIA Plus TV from 2011-2016, here are some instructions to disable tracking:

• Go to Menu on remote
• Select System
• Reset & Admin
• Smart Interactivity – Toggle OFF

The good news is, TVs sold in 2016 & later as SmartCast do not tracking not enabled by default.

Is there a way to disable Smart TVs from listening to you?

Well, yes… You can disable Voice Recognition but then you’ll lose that functionality.

I’m concerned, what can I do?

You should keep in mind your activities are being tracked everywhere you go these days, it’s usually in that fine print terms of service agreement we all skip through. Marketing departments and agencies are supported by all this valuable information data provides. Your ISP and browser are tracking where you go & what you buy online. All websites follow you with ads, Facebook tracks your likes and enables advertisers to segment their audiences based upon your behaviors. It’s not new though, for a long time stores have been track your purchasing habits via loyalty cards.

TVs are a small piece of a much bigger privacy issue, you should always review the privacy policy of your TV or streaming player. A great compilation of manufacturer policies are listed on The Wirecutter “Your Privacy, Your Devices, and You”

But overall, don’t worry. This information is innocent as long as you’re not doing anything illegal! The data gathered is simply intended to improve services offered, but of course, you should be aware of any data about you and how its handled… so do read up on it!

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