A Consumer Reports engineer evaluates smart TV privacy practices.
A Consumer Reports engineer evaluates smart TV privacy practices.
Photo: Michael A. Smith

Over the past five years, Consumer Reports and other news organizations have reported on how internet-connected smart TVs collect information as people watch them at home.

However, a recent study we conducted with 16 volunteers around the country showed that people may not understand what information their TVs collect, or know about settings they can use to boost their privacy.

More on TVs and Privacy

The project was part of CR's consumer experience and usability research program, in which we study how consumers interact with products to better inform our lab testing. In this case, a user-interface expert interviewed participants in an online environment as they clicked through screen shots taken from smart TV platforms. The participants helped us evaluate the type of smart TV platform they used at home, performing tasks such as finding privacy policies and the right settings for cutting down on data collection.

"This study gave us insights on why consumers often overlook TV privacy policies and settings," says Charu Ahuja, who directs the consumer experience program. "In many platforms, the steps required to set up a TV don't make it easy for consumers to find and understand the privacy policy, and then, they don't make it obvious that some privacy settings can be changed."

Privacy Policies Are Easy to Overlook

Like laptops and smartphones, modern TVs collect consumer information, and the TVs come with privacy disclosures in their user agreements, which are typically displayed during the setup process. None of the volunteers in our study had read through an entire user agreement when they set up their TV.

"I likely was in such a hurry I probably just said okay to most everything," an LG owner named Vincent said. "When you get a new toy, you want to play with it immediately.” (To protect their privacy, we're not using volunteers' full names.)

Our participants helped us evaluate smart TV platforms specific to LG and Samsung, plus Google Android TVs, Amazon Fire TVs, and Roku TVs. Those last three platforms are used in televisions from a number of brands.

We asked participants to read about their TV's privacy practices. It wasn't easy, for a few reasons.

In some cases, people needed to scroll through the documents using small, hard-to-see arrows. And if the participants skipped over the privacy policies during the initial setup process, it could be hard to find the right screens later—they were often buried a few menus deep under settings. 

Screen shot of LG smart TV privacy policy and the small arrows that users need to use to read it.
Users found the small controls needed to view LG's entire privacy policy hard to see and use.

The participants also said the privacy policies were complicated and hard to wade through. "It is really long," a Roku TV user named Maureen said. "I think it is kind of designed to confuse and bore the consumer so that we don't read it."

Roku says it is just trying to be comprehensive. "It's important to us that these policies are thorough, and the length of the documents reflects that," a Roku spokesperson told us. 

The Roku TV privacy policy wasn't the longest we found. It ran to 4,200 words, while Samsung TVs were the long-winded champs, topping out at more than 8,000 words. (Consumer Reports' privacy policy is hefty, too, at about 6,000 words.)

Several of the study's participants told us that the language in the documents was too dense. "A lot of the terms and conditions are lawyer language that's not easily digestible," said Kevin, who owns an Android TV made by Sony. 

'What's the Use of Fighting It?'

Screen shot showing that consumers need to accept the Android smart TV privacy policy to set up their TV.
Android TVs give you the option of accepting Google's terms of service or . . . actually, that's the only option.

A few of the volunteers in our study shrugged off the way data is collected by the TVs in their homes, while others were more troubled by it.

"Honestly, I don’t normally read things like this, for consumer products anyways," Toshiba Fire TV owner Gary told us. "I’ll read the fine print if I’m signing off on some bank statements . . . but when it comes to normal, everyday consumer objects, I don’t tend to read these.”

By contrast, Olga said her Amazon smart TV, made by Toshiba, reminded her of Facebook, and not in a good way. "They build a profile on what kind of consumer you are, then you’re targeted with ads that the advertisers think, potentially, will be of interest to you. I usually get irritated with that. It's annoying. It just makes me very aware that my information is out there and someone is collecting it."

Whether the data collection bothered them or not, our study participants didn't feel like they could do much about it.

One participant named Philip told us he felt that if he said no to the privacy policies, "I wouldn’t even really be able to use the smart aspect of the TV, which I would say is the biggest reason we purchased it. Being able to access the streaming services through their interface makes it super-convenient."

The study participants have a point. LG and Samsung smart TVs do allow you decline their user agreements during setup, but if you do that, you can't use the televisions' streaming functions.

By contrast, Amazon Fire TVs, Android TVs, and Roku TVs all require you to accept a privacy policy—you can't opt out. When you set up an Android TV, for instance, you get to a screen where you need to click "Accept" to agree to a privacy policy. Otherwise, you can't continue the setup process, and you can't use the TV at all, even as a "dumb" set without internet access.

"Users do need to accept the Google terms and policies, but they are not required to sign into a Google Account," a Google spokesman told us. "So the experience for a non signed-in user isn't tied to a particular Google account."

However, most TVs do give you some privacy controls. Typically, you can adjust a technology called automatic content recognition, or ACR, that tells manufacturers what you're watching, whether it comes from cable TV, through an antenna, from streaming service, or even from your DVD or Blu-ray collection.

Our study volunteers were surprised to learn about these settings. On their own, none of them had realized they could control any aspect of data collection, and they found the controls tricky to locate even once we asked them to go searching. 

"Now that I’m seeing this, I wonder if I can go back through this setup and just uncheck all the data collection," Vincent told us. "It was a while ago, and I don't really recall [what I agreed to]." 

(Vincent knows how to find those settings now. For everyone else, CR has a guide to turning off smart TVs' snooping features.)

The way our study volunteers had largely given up hope when it comes to protecting their data raises a concern about the way privacy works for TVs, along with other products and services. Our study suggests that consumers have been trained not to look too closely at what kind of information their devices collect, or whether they can do anything to protect their privacy. People may assume that when they see a privacy policy, they don't have a meaningful choice. And often they're right. 

"If you don’t agree at the beginning, they won’t let you proceed to the next step," one participant said. "So what’s the point of fighting it?"