What Your Smart TV Knows About You

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Watching the watchers. Photo-Illustration: Getty Images

On Monday, Vizio reached a settlement with the FTC and the New Jersey attorney general, agreeing to pay $2.2 million in damages after installing software that tracked everything viewers were watching by analyzing the pixels on their screens. Vizio took this information, along with demographic information about users, and sold it to third-party advertisers to enable tracking across multiple devices.

The upside for Vizio owners is that they can now turn this service off (go to Menu > System > Reset & Admin > Smart Interactivity and switch that off). New Vizio owners will have to opt in, and the amount of information that can be gathered about them will be reduced.

But what if you have another smart TV? Or what if you use a streaming device? Here’s a rundown of the most current policies. (The Wirecutter did a very thorough piece toward the end of 2015 that’s also helpful, though I found a few manufacturers have updated their tracking policies since then, perhaps in response to Vizio’s own legal troubles. The system: Maybe it works?)

A quick note for those truly concerned about privacy: You should know nearly anytime you stream something to your TV, whether that’s using your built-in smart-TV software or a streaming device, information is being collected about you. And not just by manufacturers: Content providers like Netflix track your watching habits as well. If you want to watch things without being tracked at all you’ll need to either watch via Blu-Ray, USB stick, or streaming directly off your computer with something like Plex.

Samsung

Samsung went through a round of bad publicity after it revealed its smart TVs that used voice recognition might pass along any stray conversations not involving playing a new episode of Halt and Catch Fire to its own servers and potentially third parties. It has since rolled back that feature and updated its privacy policy — and by default, tracking options are turned off. That said, it’s easy to breeze through clicking “Agree All” when setting up your TV. To turn it off in models released since 2016, go to Settings > Support > Terms & Policies. From there there’s four options: Viewing Information Services, Voice Recognition Services, Nuance Voice Recognition, and Privacy Notices. Click into any of them and you can opt back out if you’ve accidentally enabled them.

Older model Samsung smart TVs used the same tech that Vizio was using to analyze the pixels on viewers’ screens, and had the tech turned on by default. To turn it off, go to Settings > Support >Terms & Policy > SyncPlus and Marketing, and then turn SyncPlus off.

Sony

Sony uses Android TV as its smart-TV platform, which means you can expect the same out of privacy as when using Google products (i.e., not much). However, I’m not sure exactly what Sony’s smart-TV tracking policy is. It’s not online anywhere as far as I can tell, and Sony hasn’t gotten back to me with details yet. I’ll update if and when they do.

While Sony TVs now have tracking turned off by default, it’s easy to enable them while speeding through setup. To disable them (or just make sure they’re turned off), go to Help > Privacy Settings.

LG

Good news first: LG’s privacy policy is one of the better ones out there, thanks to an update at the end of 2015 that made its policy about sharing information to third parties much clearer. Second, if you bought a TV from LG since 2015 that uses WebOS, your viewing habits won’t be tracked by default — though, again, it’s to blow through hitting “Agree” when you first set up the TV and approve tracking without realizing. To disable, head to Settings > General > About This TV > User Agreements. From there you’ll see three options: Viewing Information, Personal Advertising, and Voice Information. Turn any or all of them off.

The bad news: If you bought an LG smart TV before 2013, tracking was on by default, and it also used the same tech as Vizio to continuously track what you’re watching. Luckily, it’s even easier to disable: Go to Settings > Options > LivePlus and then disable the tech.

Streaming Devices

Nearly every streaming device tracks and aggregates your watching habits as well. And, of course, individual streaming services may have different tracking policies as well — Netflix’s policies may differ from, say, Crackle. That said, here’s a quick rundown of the major streaming devices, from worst to best in terms of privacy.

Roku: Roku is still my personal favorite streaming device — simple, comprehensive, and serving up content without trying to steer me toward a certain content provider (unlike many other companies on this list). That said, its privacy policy is maddeningly vague, and the company retains the right to help third parties target online ads for you based on demographic data and your streaming habits. You can try to opt out of some of this tracking by going into settings and checking “Limited Ad Tracking and Measurement,” but you can’t entirely opt out. It’s disappointing to know if you want the best, you also have to accept that some of your information is always going to be passed around.

Google Chromecast: It’s always important to remember that Google is not a search or hardware or software company — despite offering some of the best-in-class products in many of these areas. Google is a large advertising company, and therefore wants to know as much about you as possible. So it’s not a massive surprise the company tracks your viewing habits automatically. That said, it doesn’t sell your information to third-party data brokers — it just uses it to better tailor its own ads to you. If you want to disable this, open up the Google Home app on your phone, go to device settings, and handle privacy options from there.

Amazon Fire Stick: It can take a minute to suss out what Amazon does with information about your viewing habits. In the Fire Stick’s privacy policy, it’s not clear whether the company shares your viewing habits with third parties, only that the Fire Stick follows Amazon’s general privacy policy. That general privacy policy, however, states “Information about [Amazon] customers is an important part of our business, and we are not in the business of selling it to others,” and then offers a reasonably proscribed set of circumstances where your information may be shared. Still, if you’d rather reduce the amount of info Amazon collects, you can go to Settings > System > Advertising ID > Interest-Based Ads and turn off that setting.

Apple: Apple TV’s privacy policy is the best that I’ve read, probably because the company doesn’t need to worry about bringing in third-party advertisers or selling to data brokers. (Being in the business of high-margin consumer electronics means you can stay out of the muck.) It collects information about your viewing habits, but only uses this information internally to improve its service. If you don’t even want this info passed along, you can turn it off by going to Settings > General > Privacy in newer Apple TVs (or Settings > General > Send Data to Apple in older models) and disabling sharing your viewing habits with Apple, period.

What Your Smart TV Knows About You