Disable Smart TV tracking

This should comes as no surprise to my readers, but your “smart” TV is literally watching what you watch. It’s not watching you, it’s watching the screen. That is, it’s examining the images on your display in order to identify what you’re viewing. Why do they do this? Because they can.

Smart TV Tracking Features Aren’t New

TV tracking is not new. I covered it in the first edition of my book, based on this story in Salon. The author had a spiffy new smart TV with built-in camera and microphone. What could go wrong? When he read the 46-page privacy policy, he found out. As just one example, the privacy policy stated: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.”

Now this sounds worse than it probably is. Like Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Siri, most of these smart devices are trying to do cool things for you using voice recognition. “Alexa, what is the weather today?” When you say the wake word – in Amazon’s case, “Alexa” – the device records the next thing you say. It then sends that recording to “the cloud” to be interpreted (because currently these devices don’t have the capacity to process things locally).

Nevertheless, you need to be aware that using these technologies means that snippets of what you say will be sent to third parties and potentially stored there. A recent murder investigation actually issued a warrant for Amazon’s recordings at a particular house to see if they could help solve the case. (Really want to get creeped out? Check out ultrasonic cross-device tracking.)

Disabling Automatic Content Recognition

The particular feature we’re discussing today is called Automatic Content Recognition (ACR). This technology is being built into most new smart TVs and it actually scans the images on your screen to match them up to known content: TV shows, movies, sports games, and even commercials.

Consumer Reports did a study of 5 top TV brands and found that all of them had some sort of tracking built in. This was echoed by a similar report in the NY Times. Both of these reports contained detailed instructions for disabling this tracking, or at least minimizing it. Instead of repeating that all here, I’ll just point you to the articles:

But there’s an even more effective way to stop this tracking: don’t connect your TV to the Internet! Now, of course, if you don’t connect your TV to the web, you will lose most or all of the cool smart TV features. You will essentially make your smart TV dumb. But if you aren’t using those features – either because you have a separate set top box for those same features (Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, etc) or because you simply don’t use them.

Of course, you need to check the privacy settings on every smart box you own. Each of them probably has several settings for “personalized” or “custom” content (read, tracking). Fun, huh? Welcome to the brave new world of the Internet of Things!


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