Is your Smart TV spying on you? At least two US Senators think so and they have written to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking them to investigate.
The Senators in question are Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), both of whom have been strong advocates for American citizen’s right to privacy.
They have written a strongly worded letter to Joseph Simons, Chairman of the FCC, raising serious concerns about the Smart TV’s collect and use data on their viewing habits of customers.
Serious Smart TV privacy concerns
In this letter, they note that most modern Smart TVs contain built-in technology which can monitor exactly what users are doing on the device. This includes what apps and streaming services they are using, any online games they are playing, and even what specific programmes they are watching.
The data they collect is used to tailor and target advertising at individual users in almost all circumstances, and the two Senators suggest that this raises serious privacy concerns.
Some people might dismiss these concerns, but as the Senator’s letter points out, people’s TV viewing habits can tell us a lot about their character and interests, as well as information such as their political affiliations.
They also rightly note that many Smart TV users will be unaware that their devices are monitoring their viewing habits and then passing the data on in this way. They have therefore asked the FTC to conduct an investigation into the privacy policies and practices of smart TV manufacturers.
Their letter comes off the back of a report on this issue in the New York Times. That report highlighted the practices of Samba TV, which is perhaps the biggest company which processes Smart TV data.
It noted that while Samba TV does give customers the opportunity to enable their tracking system, they fail to provide a level of information which would enable users to make an informed decision.
They also appear to use misleading terms, such as making promises of special and exclusive offers, without revealing that these are in exchange for permitting access to sensitive personal information.
What can the FTC do?
The FTC has so far failed to comment publicly on the letter from Senator’s Markey and Blumenthal.
But the Senator’s used the letter to highlight the February 2017 case of Smart TV manufacturer Vizio, which ended up paying $2.2 million as a settlement over charges that it collected user data from more than 11 million devices without user knowledge.
The letter notes that Federal Laws have never been updated to take account of the development of Smart TV technology in this area. The FTC is not in a position to change the law on Smart TV. That is a job for Congress. But, as in the case of Vizio, they can punish companies guilty of bad practice.
The Senators have not made any specific requests for action beyond an investigation.
But they do note a strongly held belief that “any entity collecting and using sensitive information should comprehensively and concisely detail who will have access to that data, how that data will be used, and what steps will be taken to protect that information.”
That seems like an eminently reasonable statement and one that few consumers in America, or elsewhere, would disagree with. However, it remains to be seen just what action the FTC will now choose to take.
If you are using a Smart TV and have concerns over what personal data is being collected from that device and how it is being used, the best thing to do is to check the privacy settings on the device or contact your manufacturer for guidance.
Use a VPN to protect your Smart TV data
Another sensible precaution to stop that data from falling into the wrong hands is to use a VPN. A VPN encrypts all of your internet data and so stops prying eyes from being able to see what you are doing online.
Using a VPN with a Smart TV isn’t always easy. If your Smart TV runs on Android, then you’re in luck. You can simply choose a provider such as ExpressVPN or IPVanish and then download their Android app onto your device.
If it doesn’t, then you will need to either use a VPN-enabled router to encrypt your entire Wi-Fi network. Take a look at our guide on How to Setup a VPN on a Smart TV to help you do this.
A VPN may not stop your manufacturer harvesting data from Smart TV itself, but it will ensure that no-one else is able to access your viewing habits or any other sensitive data you may be using online.