Vizios Aren't the Only TVs That Are Tracking You

With news of Vizio sharing its customers’ viewing information and personal data without permission, a natural next question is: what do other companies do?

The Wirecutter, a product-review site now owned by The New York Times, looked at this issue in December 2015. It found that numerous other TV and entertainment-device companies sell products that monitor your viewing habits, but many of them require you to opt in, while others make it difficult to opt out.

Here is a summary of the site’s findings and my ratings of how well these companies respect your privacy, based on three factors: clear disclosure, what they collect and do with the information, and the ability to opt out:

LG

LG asks you to opt in to let it collect the the programs that you watch. If you give permission, it will collect the information and your IP address, and share it with others. (The IP address is a unique series of numbers that identifies the connected TV to the Internet.) But when you do go through the setup, the box that provides permission is already checked and you need to uncheck it.

Rating: Fair

Samsung

Samsung also collects the shows you watch, plus your IP address, and uses that information for advertising and “other” purposes. During the setup, it provides an “agree to all” before you read the agreement, which includes permission for sharing your data.

Rating: Fair

Sony

Sony collects each TV's identification number, but doesn’t say if it collects viewing information. It uses the data for personalized recommendations, advertising, and for product improvement. It also shares your data with Gracenote to provide program listings and recommendations. You need to opt in to give the company permission.

Rating: Good

Sharp

Sharp says it collects your IP address, usage patterns, data, and other activities, and uses this information for personalization and to deliver content. It doesn’t indicate whether it uses the data for personalized advertising or other tracking, nor whom it shares it with. Sharp has no opt-out policy and says that to prevent the sharing you need to turn off its connected service.

Rating: Poor

Roku

Roku collects the program information you watch and captures your IP address and your WiFi login. Roku says it uses that data for a variety of things, including personalizing content and advertising. Roku does not say whom it shares the information with. It has no way to opt out, collects more information than most, including information from “other connected devices,” apparently on your home network.

Rating: Poor

Apple TV

Apple TV: Apple states that it may collect some logging data that’s used to diagnose and identify problems with the device and service, but it doesn’t indicate whom they share this limited data with. The company does not collect personal information or your IP, and you also need to opt in for this to occur.

Rating: Excellent

Google Chromecast

Google Chromecast: Google collects the sites and apps you use with the Chromecast TV add-on. It also collects your IP address, what you view, and the sites you visit. Google does not say whom it shares this information with, but Google is in the business of using the information it collects from its many products for advertising purposes. It does provide your information to the other sites that you view, along with your identifier. You can opt out from all of this collection in a clearly marked settings button.

Rating: Good

Xbox

Xbox: Microsoft says it collects information on the games you play and what you watch, and associates this with the device’s unique identification number. The company says third parties may receive your data, but are not allowed to use it for personalized advertising. There is no way to opt out.

Rating: Fair

Sony PlayStation

Sony PlayStation Sony collects your IP address plus Web browsing, downloads, and games you play, if you connect it to a network account. The company can use your information without personally identifying you for anything they choose, including advertisers. There is no way to opt out.

Rating: Fair

What’s the conclusion? While none of these companies are as blatant as Vizio was—which correlated what you watched with your personal information and never told you—all but Apple wants to collect information that they can use for advertising or other commercial purposes. And yes, some can use this information for your benefit, such as to provide recommended programs you might like to see.

Where most differ is how clear they are about explaining what they will do with the data they collect and allowing you to opt in or out. And even those that let you opt out go to great lengths to make it difficult to do so.

Consumers Reports reported what they went through setting up their Samsung TV:

We set up a current Samsung smart TV and 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.

Clearly, in spite of all efforts to select a TV that’s less likely to track you, these policies are subject to change at any time and require you to be diligent. The best you can hope for is to avoid those companies that don’t respect your wishes to maintain your privacy and support those that do. Or better yet, don’t connect your TV to WiFi. Of course, you still might be tracked by your cable TV provider or TiVo.