Does your smart TV report back on your viewing habits?

Smart TVs seem to have flown under the radar for a while now, but Senators Markey and Blumenthal are keen on investigating the data these devices collect.
13 July 2018

Senator Blumenthal, Source: Flickr / Senator Chris Coons

Have you ever wondered if your smart TV is snooping on you? Well, it probably is, according to two US Senators who have called for the industry to be investigated.

In a recent letter to Joseph Simons, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Senators Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said they were concerned about “consumer privacy issues raised by the proliferation of smart-TV technology.”

According to the New York Times, the two Senators are worried about the business practices of smart-television manufacturers amid worries that companies are tracking consumers’ viewing behavior without their knowledge.

The letter, which cites the practices of a San Francisco-based company Samba TV, reads:

“Many internet-connected smart TVs are equipped with sophisticated technologies that and track the content users are watching and then use that information to tailor and deliver targeted advertisements to consumers.

“By identifying the broadcast and cable shows, video games, over-detailed profiles about users’ preferences and characteristics. Recent reports even suggest that smart TVs can identify user’s political affiliations based on whether they watch conservative or liberal media outlets.

“Regrettably, smart TV users may not be aware of the extent to which their televisions are collecting sensitive information about their viewing habits.”

The letter cited Samba TV and pointed out some of the questionable practices followed by the company, with regards to capture and use of sensitive user data.

Another New York Times article on Samba TV, cited in the letter, revealed that the company collects viewing data from 13.5 million homes in the United States. It has also collaborated with companies such as Sony, Sharp, TCL, Philips to place its software on some of their smart TVs.

“The company essentially pays television manufacturers to be included on their sets, saying its business model “does subsidize a small piece of the television hardware,” though it declined to provide further details,” said the article.

When consumers set up a TV with built-in Samba software, they encounter a screen asking them to enable Samba Interactive TV.

The opt-in language reads: “Interact with your favorite shows. Get recommendations based on the content you love. Connect your devices for exclusive content and special offers. By cleverly recognizing onscreen content, Samba Interactive TV lets you engage with your TV in a whole new way.”

Clearly, the language is not representative of what the company actually does with the data, and hence, the Senators feel that an investigation is warranted.

“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. Users should be given the opportunity to affirmatively consent to the collection and use of their sensitive information, while still having access to the core functions of smart TV technology,” the letter suggests.

While the letter was only written yesterday, privacy advocates and activists are keen on a quick response, which Chairman Simons might provide.

And although a strong investigation might not yield much, the matter is serious and must be clubbed into existing technology-related data and privacy laws that are being deliberated on by the country’s legal councils.