M Series

Vizio’s declaration in statements earlier this year that it plans to profit from mining the viewer data collected by its smart TVs has led to media and consumer backlash including various recent reports about big brother in your TV set, class action lawsuits against the TV manufacturer and thousands of worried TV purchasers who don’t want their personal viewing information being sold to solicitors, or potentially left at risk to interception by hackers and God knows who else?

The news shed light on the systems and practices that some TV manufacturers – including: Vizio, LG, Samsung, Sony and others – have been using to monitor and collect certain viewing data linked to — if you believe the manufactures — more or less anonymous IP addresses.

Despite a recent unnamed media report to the contrary, most of these TVs, including Vizio’s, give you the ability through their menu systems to opt out (or shut off) this data collection, and continue using the smart TV features. Although, some of these opt-out controls are not that easy to find.

More on opting out of smart TV data mining after the jump:

Most TV brands give purchasers the opportunity to opt-out of “automatic data collection” or “automatic content recognition” at setup, although the option to uncheck the system and turn off data collection is often buried after pages of legalese in end-user license agreements.

Most TV makers will tell you that the data collection is used to make programming recommendations and to help tailor program listings and other features to user preferences. This data can then be used to speed up and improve the viewing experience.

In other cases, like Vizio’s, data collection is automatically enabled and has to be de-selected by the user to turn it off. One of the ways Vizio can sell its TVs at the relatively low prices you will see in stores and online is by generating revenue after the sale by selling your TV usage data to content producers, distributors and others.

This data is used to identify which programs are getting the most visibility at key measuring periods, can be used to determine which programs a network should cancel or continue and guide advertisers to target ads at the best programming vehicles to catch your attention.

Typically, Vizio links data only to IP address numbers, which are more or less anonymous, although there are companies which gather your personal data linked to your IP addresses. According to some recent reports, Vizio could sell its collected viewing data to these companies who could then link any information they’ve collected elsewhere to the viewing data Vizio gets from you. All of this could then be sold to product and service solicitors who could target products to you that match your interests through TV ads, email spam, phone calls etc.

The company, however, denies that collection of data this specific is done. We contacted Vizio for comment on its data collection policies. The company said: “Vizio believes that better information means better entertainment. Vizio Inscape Data Services uses Smart Interactivity to gauge audience viewership of TV content and does not collect any personal information.

“This enables Vizio to gather aggregate feedback that can help improve the design of our products and our software, provide more relevant entertainment content options and recommendations for users, and enable our partners to understand key insights that can help shape future programming and content,” the statement continued.

Vizio’s policy states that “Vizio remains very mindful of its responsibility to protect consumer privacy and takes all potential security concerns extremely seriously.”

For those who don’t want to take any chances, Vizio pointed out that consumers have the option to disable Smart Interactivity. Instructions on how to turn Smart Interactivity off or on can be found at vizio.com/smartinteractivity, and the company added that “turning Smart Interactivity off will not affect the performance of a consumer’s Vizio Smart TV or any other online connected services.”

To turn off Smart Interactivity in Vizio TVs, locate system settings and look for “Reset & Admin,” where you will find an option to turn Interactivity off.

It should be pointed out that Vizio is facing two separate lawsuits for its data collection practices. The suits include: a class action brought by David Watts and Whitney Keeter in Central California U.S. District court, citing violations of the Video Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. 1710; violations of California’s Consumer Records Act, Cal. Civ. Code 2798.80; violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code 17200; and violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act.

The second class-action suit was brought by Palma Reed in the U.S. District Court in Northern California, claiming that Vizio and software partner Cognitive Media Networks secretly install tracking software on Vizio smart TVs in a way that violates various federal and state laws.

The complaints claim that in addition to collecting viewing data, Vizio’s system scans users’ home computer networks for information, which could include gathering information on other connected devices in the home.

Also claimed is that Vizio enlists data brokers to who can add information to collected viewing data to make it more specific to the user, and passes potentially sensitive information along to clients and partners.

In response to our query about why Vizio believes this data collection does not violate various state and federal laws regulating such practices, the company said that: “Vizio Inscape Data Services does not collect personal information, such as names, home addresses or phone numbers.

As such, Vizio Inscape Data Services is not subject to the Video Privacy Protection Act. Vizo works diligently in a responsible manner to allow for consumer control, maintain privacy, and keep data secure. For further information, Vizio Privacy Policy details are available at http://www.vizio.com/privacy.”

Vizio’s data collection practices are not new, just a little more brazenly presented than some other TV manufacturers.

For example, LG does not currently enable automatic data collection on newer WebOS sets, but older models using LG’s “Live Plus” did ship with automatic data collection enabled. For those with one of these earlier LG smart TV models, Live Plus can be disabled from within the Options menu, by selecting the “Live Plus” submenu and clicking off the feature.

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Similarly, Samsung TVs have a menu selection to shut off data collection listed under its “Smart Hub” menu. Here you will find a selection for “Terms & Policy,” and then “SyncPlus and Marketing.” Here users will find an option to disable the feature.

Samsung also collects user data through its Voice Recognition Services, which also can be turned off with a setting under the Terms & Policy menu, and Samsung interactive content partner Yahoo collects Samsung TV user data as well, and their collection mechanism can be disabled by disagreeing to the “Yahoo Privacy Policy.”

Meanwhile, Sony TVs using the Android TV platform from Google also will collect viewer data. However, on setup of an Android TV the end user accepts the Google Terms of Service and Privacy Policy to collect usage data for product improvement.

Sony told us: “Privacy is important to Sony,” and Sony therefore spells out its privacy policy online for concerned customers.

“In short, Sony collects usage data for product improvement: https://products.sel.sony.com/SEL/legal/privacy.html,” the company told HD Guru.

In addition, on the Android TV’s, like other Android-powered devices, the end user opts to accept at set up the Google Terms of Service and Privacy Policy to use those features. Those can be found here:
www.google.com/policies/terms and here: www.google.com/policies/privacy. The user accepts the Google Terms of Service and Privacy Policy during setup.

So, should data mining practices by TV manufacturers and their various partners be of concern in buying a new TV this holiday season? The ability to turn these systems off (and assuming they are really turned off) leads HD Guru to believe it isn’t a big deal for now, but caveat emptor: in a death-by a thousand- cuts scenario, we are all losing more and more of our personal rights to privacy through a wide range of devices and services we elect to use everyday.

It’s no longer the spying eyes and ears of the NSA, FBI, and CIA, presumably looking for terrorists and threats to our nation’s well being, of which we need to beware. It’s the spam merchants, telephone solicitors, hackers, cyber thieves and others that may now have the ability to access private details of our lives through various platforms, no matter how innocently the data collection is at first presented to us. Please, TV makers: find a better way of generating revenue to meet your profit goals, and design your smart TV platforms with data security top of mind.

By Greg Tarr


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