Samsung, LG, and Vizio smart TVs are recording—and sharing data about—everything you watch

Consumer Reports investigates the information brokers who want to turn your viewing habits into cash

Published: February 27, 2015 11:40 AM

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A few weeks ago, controversy erupted over smart TVs after a series of reports, including one from Consumer Reports, revealed that televisions made by Samsung and others could be recording their owners' private conversations. Implanting microphones inside TV remote controls raises the possibility of some pretty serious privacy violations, but in practice, it seems that Samsung’s TVs are simply processing voice commands on remote servers. That's similar to the way Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo, and many other voice-controlled products work. However, the same TVs are collecting and sharing another kind of data on a massive scale—and in this case the privacy intrusion is very concrete.

You can get a hint of what's going on by closely examining Samsung’s privacy policy.

“By enabling SyncPlus or other marketing features, you may make the content and advertising that you receive on your SmartTV and other devices when you are watching SmartTV more interactive.

“ . . . To make these kinds of enhancements available, we provide video or audio snippets of the program you’re watching to third-party providers that use this information in order to return content or advertising “synched” to what you’re watching. These providers may receive information about your device (e.g., its IP address and device identifiers) and your interactions with the content and advertising they provide.”

What that means is that the TVs are sending data to third parties on everything you watch, whether it's a TV broadcast, a streaming movie, a YouTube video, or a DVD from your private collection. And it’s not just Samsung—LG and Vizio are also harvesting data about their customers’ viewing habits. All these manufacturers have been embedding the functionality into many of their smart TVs, in some cases since 2012.

The technology is known in the television business as automatic content recognition, or ACR, and it has spawned an entire secondary industry focused on collecting and monetizing information about the viewing behavior of TV viewers directly from their own television sets.

Here’s how it works: Companies such as Cognitive Networks, Enswers, and Gracenote collaborate with television manufacturers to embed ACR technology into smart TVs that monitors either the video or audio stream—and sometimes both—that the user is watching. The ACR creates a “fingerprint” of the on-screen content, then sends it to a remote server that uses that fingerprint to determine what programming is being watched.

Since much of the ACR process is handled by these third parties, it is likely that millions of smart TV owners have inadvertently left an extensive data trail chronicling months, if not years, of their TV-watching history on the servers of companies they’ve never heard of.  

Precise data about consumer TV viewing habits can be very valuable information. Revenues for audience-measurement company Nielsen surpassed $6 billon last year. Television manufacturers have promoted ACR as an interactive-TV technology—LG, for instance, partnered with cable channel Showtime to synchronize on-screen extra content during shows such as “Homeland” and “Shameless." But the companies behind ACR also see its potential as an analytics and targeted-advertising platform.

Enswers has been embedded at the hardware level into Samsung smart TVs since 2012. The company has already used the technology to push interactive advertisements for retirement-planning financial products in Spain, and to prompt Samsung smart TV owners to purchase David Beckham underwear during Super Bowl XLVIII using their remote controls—a use of ACR that has come to be known as “t-commerce.”

Looking for a smart TV, even though it might be spying on you? Check out our Ratings of LCD, LED, OLED, and plasma televisions.

When asked for comment about the technology and how the relationship works, a Samsung spokesperson declined to comment, saying only that the company does not discuss its partner relationships. Samsung’s partner, however, has commented extensively. In this interview last April, Enswers America CEO Joonpyo Lee acknowledged that his company’s video-recognition technology was embedded in all Samsung smart TVs sold in North America. Lee said, “Every day, Enswers identifies content for millions of queries against thousands of hours of audio and video content, while processing hundreds of media files and live feeds into its database.”

Vizio didn't immediately respond to a request for information from Consumer Reports, but the "Smart Interactivity" section of its privacy policy describes how Vizio televisions collect viewing information " . . . including but not limited to the identity of your broadcast, cable, or satellite television provider, the television programs and commercials you view (including time, date, channel, and whether you view them live or time-shifted), and whether you click on any advertisements."

An LG spokesperson acknowledged to Consumer Reports that its ACR is provided by Cognitive Networks, in a relationship that dates back to 2013. (We were also told that content recognition was not yet operational in some of LG’s newer TVs that use the webOS platform). According to LG, the fingerprint data from its TVs goes directly to Cognitive’s servers, where the content is identified, and then Cognitive shares the matched data results upon LG’s request. LG says it owns the data collected from its sets, and that, at least for now, it shares the data only with “technical partners” to enable interactive applications. LG also says that it isn’t currently using ACR data to serve personalized ads. But language in the company's privacy policy certainly gives it the option of doing so in the future.

“Depending on which Smart TV service you are using, we may use your Viewing Information to provide you with recommendations of TV content that may be of interest to you, to contribute to aggregate statistics to determine the popularity of particular TV content, to serve you with advertisements for content, products, and services that may be of interest to you, to analyze how our services are being used, and make improvements to them.”

What’s more, Cognitive certainly sees personalized advertising as part of its business model. In its 2013 press release announcing the partnership with LG, the company highlighted the value of ACR for advertisers, who could “pinpoint what viewer’s interests are and provide more targeted advertisements based on their preferences.” A white paper prepared by the market research firm Parks Associates for Cognitive Networks lists the “always on” nature of ACR as one of its key benefits, claiming “The consumer does not need to opt-in to an app or service in order to interact with enhanced TV features.”

This infographic is from a white paper prepared for Cognitive Networks.

Which brings up a key concern with the user-monitoring features now built into smart TVs: Consumers don’t know precisely what they’re enabling when they click through the TV’s privacy policy. When Consumer Reports set up a current Samsung smart TV, we were confronted with a terms of service and privacy agreement that had nine separate expandable sections to explore. One section, the “Smart Hub Privacy Policy,” covered 47 screens’ worth of text. Users setting up an LG set will see terms of use with 18 sections and a privacy policy with 11 separate sections, and a rider screen asking them to okay three additional services—in total, more than 6,000 words of legal disclosure. Regardless, both TVs allow you to zip through these agreements by agreeing to them all at once. And a consumer could hardly be blamed for not wanting to read thousands of words of legal documentation on their TVs when they’re trying to set them up for the first time. (Disclosure and a mea culpa: Consumer Reports has our own long and complex privacy policy, for our website.)

Samsung's 47-screen privacy policy

Some politicians and advocates have called for more government oversight. Earlier this month, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) sent open letters to Samsung and LG, asking the companies to explain their policies concerning voice data.

Separately, Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), has submitted a complaint to the FTC about Samsung’s data collection. When Consumer Reports asked Rotenberg how he felt about ACR technology, he renewed his call to action for the FTC. “Consumers have no idea that these ‘SmartTVs” are actually ‘SpyTVs,’” he said. “With proper regulatory oversight, companies can innovate and consumers can have privacy. But the failure of the Federal Trade Commission to oversee these ‘always on’ devices will have catastrophic consequences.”

The good news if you're someone who’d rather not have outside parties sniffing into your viewing behavior is that you can turn off ACR. All the major manufacturers allow you to disable this feature—although doing that can require a deep dive into the settings. Alternately, you can just refuse to accept that part of the privacy policy during setup.

The bad news? If you already own one of these sets, it's very possible that the data that’s already been collected about you will live on, somewhere out there in the ether.

—Glenn Derene

Update 3-22-2015—Check out our guide to disabling ACR technology on Samsung, LG, and Vizio smart TVs.

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