You’re Watching Your Smart TV, but Is it Watching YOU? 

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You’ve just finished bingeing the latest season of Bridgerton on Netflix. You won’t admit this to anyone, but you don’t have to. Your smart TV already knows and has used your questionable choice of viewing content to recommend others like it. Before you give in to suggestions like Downton Abbey, take a moment to consider the implications of a TV that predicts you will love that show and others like it. 

Many different groups are eager to make money by selling you things they think you’ll enjoy, and they’re closely watching your viewing and spending habits to do so. While it might seem convenient when platforms like Netflix suggest movies tailored to your interests, things go a little sideways when they start analyzing your choices to share details about your life with other parties. Unfortunately, what you watch and how frequently you watch it can reveal a lot about you, including your age, political beliefs, gender identity and sexual orientation, and financial status. 

Smart TVs use automatic content recognition (ACR) to track what you watch, whether live TV, streaming services like Netflix, or videos saved on your TV. ACR is a technology that monitors everything displayed on your screen, whether it’s streaming movies on cable, watching shows on streaming services like Hulu, or any advertisements on your TV. It can identify what you’re currently viewing, what shows you watch again, and even when you lose interest and stop watching a show. Moreover, it tracks the ads you watch and those you try to skip. 

Some smart TVs also have built-in cameras and microphones. While these features can be handy for video calls or voice commands, there’s a growing concern that they could be misused for surveillance. 

It’s a threat already faced by popular smart “home assistants” users. Although Google, Alexa, and Echo devices aren’t designed to spy on users, certain factors can cause inadvertent eavesdropping. They are always on standby, waiting to hear their “wake” words like “Alexa” or “Hey Google.”  

Users are often startled when these devices come online without being asked to do so. Sometimes, these smart devices mistakenly interpret background noise or unrelated talks as their “wake” word, triggering them to start recording and sending audio to their servers.  

Alarmingly, these devices may even accidentally record bits of conversations without explicit commands, storing them temporarily to enhance voice recognition. While this recording function is crucial for their operation, it raises valid privacy concerns among users who fear that their sensitive or private discussions could be captured and stored. 

It’s a minor inconvenience until you realize hackers can access smart devices and learn too much about your habits. And it’s not just your smart TV and assistants. Any “smart” update to your home can be potentially breached by hackers and used to collect personal data and sensitive information.  

Some smart devices come with features that might track more than you realize. For instance, certain smart lightbulbs can monitor your sleep patterns and heart rate. Smart robotic vacuum cleaners can map and recognize objects within your home layout. Wearable devices like fitness trackers, smartwatches, and smart glasses also collect personal data. Even security cameras, if not properly secured, could be accessed by unauthorized individuals. 

Even drones can be hacked to access the aerial footage they collect, giving criminals a bird’s eye view of your home and property. 

Even if you’re taking steps to safeguard your data within your home, there’s no guarantee it’ll remain secure once it’s transmitted elsewhere. While many smart TVs offer built-in security measures, a deeper concern arises when hackers target extensive company databases. The hackers may use your information directly or sell it to other parties.  

Experts warn that smart TV owners should treat these screens like any other smart device. This includes frequently changing passwords, opting for a VPN for Wi-Fi network streaming, and reading the privacy notices most people skip when setting up devices. In these notices, there are usually ways to opt out of tracking.  

Every smart TV brand has a way to disable the tracking function, although it is, by design, hard to find these settings. LG refers to its ACR as LivePlus, Vizio labels it as Smart Interactivity or Viewing Data, and Samsung calls it SyncPlus & Marketing. ACR is also used by streaming services such as Google TV, Roku, and Amazon. 

While it’s a pretty safe bet that hackers in China don’t care if you’re up to date on The Mandalorian, it’s essential to understand that the same technology that recommended the show can be used for other, darker purposes.