TV manufacturer VIZIO agreed to pay $2.2 million in a settlement with the FTC regarding the improper use of customer data—which is a nice way of saying they have been stealing and selling your information to advertisers:
“According to the agencies’ complaint, starting in February 2014, VIZIO, Inc. and an affiliated company have manufactured VIZIO smart TVs that capture second-by-second information about video displayed on the smart TV, including video from consumer cable, broadband, set-top box, DVD, over-the-air broadcasts, and streaming devices.
In addition, VIZIO facilitated appending specific demographic information to the viewing data, such as sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership, and household value, the agencies allege. VIZIO sold this information to third parties, who used it for various purposes, including targeting advertising to consumers across devices, according to the complaint.”
We’ve known for a while that advertisers are willing to fork out tons of cash for consumer info. That’s why both Yahoo and Google were sued in 2016 for ad-scanning emails and both agreed to settle. So, if you’ve ever wondered why an advertisement shows up in your Facebook feed for a product you’ve shown interest in, it’s because your emails are, in fact, being read before they hit your inbox.
It’s called targeted advertising, and the smart TV scanning done by VIZIO takes it to the next level. Not only were they analyzing what you were watching, but they were also scanning which devices you were watching on, and even went as far to retrofit older models by installing the software remotely:
— Terrence O’Brien (@TerrenceOBrien) February 6, 2017
This is yet another example of how valuable our information is. It’s bad enough that we have to worry about ID thieves stealing our medical records, but now we have to worry about our TV manufacturers too?
We wish we could say that we’re surprised. Frankly, data mining isn’t going away. It’s just getting started. The debate on what’s legal is also just getting started. It wasn’t that long ago that the FBI ordered Apple to unlock the iPhone. Similarly, law enforcement served Amazon with a warrant to obtain information contained via the Echo, which records audio when it hears a “wake word”. Clearly, the battle for privacy is far from over.
What can we do about it in the meantime? Not much, to be honest. Major media and tech companies are always going to track user data at some level. It’s just a matter of how transparent they are about it. That’s why every app you download to your smart device requires “permissions”. It’s telling you that it is going to access certain personal information and needs to do so to work properly. This is an unfortunate side effect of living in a connected world.
We can and should, however, be as diligent as possible when it comes to sensitive information. Remember that less is best when it comes to social media. Always verify the source before downloading apps to your devices. The same is true for browser extensions, which have full access to your browser and the websites you visit.
And maybe not everything we own needs to be connected to the internet. If you’re not sure if your TV is recording and selling your data, you could always email customer service and ask them. But unplugging it from your network completely is the only way to know for sure.
At the very least, we should do our best to be familiar with security settings of all devices, and implement strong, unique passwords for every account. That may seem trivial when a major tech company is just stealing info from under our noses, but the future of technology is going to come with a sacrifice of privacy. There’s an economy being built and driven by consumer data. Let’s just hope we—the people whose data is being bought and sold—have control over who gets access to it. Unfortunately, as we learned in the case of VIZIO, that seems unlikely.