Vizio: The spy in your TV

The FTC and New Jersey Attorney General collected $2.2 million from Vizio for spying on consumers from their smart TVs and a promise to stop snooping on your viewing habits.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced on February 6 that Vizio had spied on almost every TV viewer from their Vizio smart TVs. Rather than fight the accusation any longer, Vizio has agreed to pay $2.2 million in fines and stop spying.

​The spy in your smart TV.

Vizio has been spying for years on everything -- everything -- you watch on their smart TVs.


Vizio, with its Smart Interactivity feature, had gathered data from more than 11 million smart TVs. This Smart Interactivity "feature" worked by watching what you watch. It didn't matter where your content was coming from -- cable, streaming, DVD players, or over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts -- Vizio got it all.

Vizio began snooping on your TV watching in 2014. The company even allegedly retrofitted older models by installing its tracking software remotely. All of this, the FTC said, was done without telling consumers or getting their consent.

The company reportedly did this by collecting a selection of on-screen pixels every second your TV was on, and then matched this to a database of TV, movie, and commercial content. This method of netting audio and video data is called automatic content recognition (ACR).

Vizio also recorded the date, time, channel of programs, and whether you watched the show live or recorded, the FTC said, and took all that data and connected it to your internet protocol (IP) address. With that much data, any big data analyst can know more about your television watching habits than your family does.

According to the FTC, "Vizio then turned that mountain of data into cash by selling consumers' viewing histories to advertisers and others". It added:

And let's be clear: We're not talking about summary information about national viewing trends. According to the complaint, Vizio got personal. The company provided consumers' IP addresses to data aggregators, who then matched the address with an individual consumer or household. Vizio's contracts with third parties prohibited the re-identification of consumers and households by name, but allowed a host of other personal details -- for example, sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education, and home ownership. And Vizio permitted these companies to track and target its consumers across devices.

If you looked very closely, you might know what Vizio was up to. Most people didn't have a clue.

FTC Acting Chairman Maureen K Ohlhausen added, "Television viewing activity is sensitive information." She continued:

We have long defined sensitive information to include financial information, health information, social security numbers, information about children, and precise geolocation information. We have also recommended that companies get opt-in consent before collecting and sharing the content of consumers' communications. But here, for the first time, the FTC has alleged in a complaint that individualized television viewing activity falls within the definition of sensitive information.

Vizio still claims "The ACR program never paired viewing data with personally identifiable information such as name or contact information." Instead, Vizio admits to "the use of viewing data in the 'aggregate' to create summary reports measuring viewing audiences or behaviors".

Still, "Vizio has agreed to stop unauthorized tracking, to prominently disclose its TV viewing collection practices, and to get consumers' express consent before collecting and sharing viewing information. In addition, the company must delete most of the data it collected and put a privacy program in place that evaluates Vizio's practices and its partners."

Still don't trust Vizio? You can turn Smart Interactivity, aka Video ACR, off by taking the following steps:

1. Press the MENU button on your TV's remote or open HDTV Settings app.

2. Select System.

3. Select Reset & Admin.

4. Highlight Smart Interactivity.

5. Press RIGHT arrow to change setting to Off.

In theory, this was disabled at the server-end on February 6. In practice, I'd still turn it off on my television too if I were you.

Vizio isn't the only company with an eye on your TV viewing habits. Samsung and LG have also had similar default settings that enable data collection.

To stop LG smart TVs in their data-gathering tracks, go to Options > LivePlus > Off. If you don't see LivePlus as a menu choice you're safe. On a Samsung, head to the TV's Smart Hub, and then: Terms & Policy > SyncPlus and Marketing > Disable.

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