Your TV’s Watching Habits


With smart TV’s becoming more common, it’s worthing making sure you understand some of the “fine print” of what goes on behind the scenes of your smart TV.

For example, Vizio – a company that is known as one of the best value brands for getting a quality TV at a reasonable price – recently became a public company. As a public company, they posted their first earnings report last month that gave a bit of insight into how their business actually work.

The answer – of course – is that they monetize their customers even after the TV sale.

Watching What Customers are Watching

That earnings report shows that, Vizio made $48.2 million profit from selling TVs, and $38.4 million from its Platform+ service. Platform+ is part of Vizio’s SmartCast system, and sells customer data (viewing data, activity data, geolocation data, etc.) to advertisers, broadcasters, and others. Check out their privacy policy here.

This means Vizio – a hardware manufacturer – made almost as much money from monetizing their user’s watching behaviors as it did from selling TVs.

This is not an uncommon thing for smart devices to do, of course.

My current favorite set-top box is made by Roku, and while they may not be data-collection juggernauts (like their competitors Amazon Fire TV or Google TV), they also collect and monetize information on viewer habits and behavior as well. View their privacy policy.

It’s not a surprise that streaming services and set-top boxes would keep track of what you watch. After all, every show on Netflix or Hulu is essentially a video file, and it’s trivial for Netflix to track which user accounts watch which videos.

What you may not know about, though, is something called ACR.

ACR

Every smart TV (whether powered by Vizio’s SmartCast, Roku, Android TV, or others) has the ability to “see” what you’re watching and send that information back to the device manufacturer.

This technology is called ACR (automatic content recognition) and it is both interesting and more than a bit creepy. Essentially the TV captures images every second from what your watching, and sends those images back to a server. The server takes the image and compares it against the TV broadcast schedule and figures out what you were watching.

Vizio’s Inscape technology has also developed a form of audio ACR which can identify the language that is being listened to.

The good news is that most TVs provide ways to disable the ACR “feature”. While this can stop ACR from transmitting your TV-viewing habits, remember that there’s no way to stop streaming services from tracking shows you watch on their platforms.

If you don’t trust the TV to respect your ACR selection, there’s another way to keep your viewing private. Simply, prevent your TV from connecting to the internet.

(Dis)Connect Your TV

Depending on your level of trust/paranoia you can:

  • Plug your TV into ethernet when it needs to update or “phone home” while setting it up. When the update is done, simply unplug the ethernet cable.
  • If you have a router with a guest WiFi network, you can connect your TV to that, and when you’re done, disconnect the TV from WiFi and change the WiFi password. Until you enter the new password, you’re TV can’t connect to WiFi.
  • Simply delete the WiFi network when you’re done setting up/updating your TV.

In the big scheme of things, I don’t think this kind of collection is as dangerous or invasive as many of the other data collection practices done by companies like Facebook or Amazon, but this is yet another way where consumers are not only the customer, but also the product.


About Colin Dorman

Colin is a freelance horn player and teacher, as well as a fan of tech of all sorts, aviation, and increasingly complex flight simulators. He also enjoys beer, bourbon and fitness - but not at the same time. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, as well as right here at ColinDorman.com!