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Nithin Coca headshot

Vizio Fined For Spying On Customers Through Their TVs

By Nithin Coca

 Vizio is one of the world's biggest manufacturers of plasma and flatscreen televisions, but that's not the only way the company was making money. The electronics giant tracked customers' watching habits and sold that data for a profit, all without informing users, according to a recent investigation.

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Vizio for collecting data through its branded smart TVs without properly informing consumers. From the FTC and New Jersey Attorney General’s official statement.

"Vizio smart TVs ... [captured] second-by-second information about video displayed on the smart TV, including video from consumer cable, broadband, set-top box, DVD, over-the-air broadcasts, and streaming devices.

"In addition, Vizio facilitated appending specific demographic information to the viewing data, such as sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership, and household value, the agencies allege. Vizio sold this information to third parties, who used it for various purposes, including targeting advertising to consumers across devices."

Few customers knew they were being tracked so thoroughly through their TV habits. Our data is valuable and, too often, we have no control over it.

While the FTC ruled unanimously that Vizio violated regulations, the fine seems paltry: $1.5 million to the FTC and $2.2 million to New Jersey. That's for 11 million televisions sold and 100 billion data points captured each year. Does the fine come close to covering the cost of the privacy violated? And does it even bite into Vizio's profiteering from the selling of our viewing data?

As TechCrunch reported last week, a single user and his or her data is valued between $15 and $40. The fine ended up costing Vizio less than 15 cents per TV sold. And it is likely the company sold user data for more than that.

And it's not just Vizio. Samsung and LG TVs similarly track user data, often with their consent during the setup process – through one of those long statements that few read and almost all to. Samsung TVs now have audio recording capabilities – ostensibly, to listen to our commands, but some fear it could be used to spy on users in their homes.

“Most smart TVs are capable of gathering and sending personal information about your and your family’s viewing habits and you might not even be aware – but there are measures you can take to protect yourself,” Wayde Robinson with Audioholics wrote in an editorial.

What are those measures? Robinson advises opting out of data-sharing, purchasing products from companies that value privacy, and limiting use of social media through smart TVs.

The challenge – it’s not just your TV that can spy on you. Soon, it might be everything. We're entering a brave new world, where technology can track our every move, without notifying us.

Smart TVs are just the start: What about a smart fridge that tracks what you eat? Smart cars that tell companies where you go? All are coming, part of the so-called Internet of Things, and few have proper, consumer-friendly privacy-protection regulations to accompany them. The U.S. government has openly stated it would use these products to spy on us.

Unless we work to get stronger privacy laws in, the Vizio case could be the first of many instances of companies using our data for profit – without our acknowledgement. It is long past time that technology companies take user privacy seriously.

Image credit: kennejima via Flickr

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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