Smart TV

Two US senators have asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate smart TV makers amid fears and evidence that companies might be using devices to collect data and track users without their knowledge.

According to a public letter signed by Senators Edward Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (Democrat, Connecticut), the two have expressed concerns about the practices of some smart TV companies.

Many internet-connected smart TVs are equipped with sophisticated technologies that can 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-the-top content like Netflix, and other applications that users are viewing, smart TVs can compile detailed profiles about users' preferences and characteristics. Recent reports even suggest that smart TVs can identify users' 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.

Smart TV user tracking is a de-facto reality

To justify their alarming letter, the two senators cited a recent New York Times report about Samba TV, a vendor of smart TVs. According to the report, while Samba tells users and lets them decide if to enable data collection for analytics purposes, it does not inform customers of the real depth of the collected data, which includes much more information than users believe they are agreeing to.

The two senators also cite an FTC settlement from February 2017, when Vizio agreed to pay a $2.2 million fine after it was caught secretly collecting user data and then selling it to third-parties without the user's explicit consent.

Another case, which was not cited by the two senators in their letter, is South Korean company Samsung. In February 2016, an EFF researcher spotted a change in the company's terms of service that warned customers not to speak personal information out loud near their smart TV because there was a danger the voice recognition feature would pick it up, send it, and store it on Samsung's servers.

Based on these previously documented cases, the two senators are now asking the FTC to start an industry-wide investigation into the data collection practices of smart TV vendors and get the ball rolling on privacy-boosting regulation for a sector they believe has been allowed to infringe in users' privacy rights.

"Regrettably, smart TV users may not be aware of the extent to which their televisions are collecting sensitive information about their viewing habits," write Senators Markey and Blumenthal. "Televisions have entered a new era, but that does not mean that users' sensitive information no longer deserves protection."

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