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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.