Is Your TV Spying on You?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 8, 2017

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Smart TVWikiLeaks recently released a collection of documents, claimed to have come from inside the Central Intelligence Agency, that described a program to “penetrate and take control of Samsung smart TVs,” according to the New York Times.

The Times reported that:

The program, code-named Weeping Angel, was intended to convert new digital televisions into “covert microphones.” …  The Weeping Angel program puts the target TV in a “fake off” mode, according to the WikiLeaks documents. Then, with the owner believing the TV is turned off, the set works as a clandestine recording device, picking up conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a C.I.A. server computer.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has offered to share leaked computer code to help tech companies fix the security flaws allegedly being used by the CIA.

However, many companies are reluctant to cooperate with Wikileaks. As the Times reported,

WikiLeaks’ reputation was marred in some circles by its previous splash in the news, the release last year of emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that were believed to have come from Russian government hackers. 

The CIA, in response to the allegations, issued a statement that, by law, the agency only spies on foreigners and foreign countries.

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However, even if you’re not suspected of being a foreign agent, you television may still be watching you.

In February, the Federal Trade Commission and the New Jersey Attorney General and Department of Consumer Affairs reached a settlement with Vizio, the television manufacturer, and related companies, claiming that their devices tracked in detail what consumers were watching.

According to the Washington Post, Vizio will pay $2.2 million to settle the case.

According to the complaint, the TVs capture second-by-second information about the programs displayed on the TV:

Defendants’ ACR software captures information about a selection of pixels on the screen and sends that data to VIZIO servers, where it is uniquely matched to a database of publicly available television, movie, and commercial content.

Vizio sold this information to third parties interested in measuring what the audience was watching.

Vizio also tracked (and sold information about) what websites consumers visited on their smart TVs after viewing specific programs.

Additionally, Vizio was able to sell data about the demographics of the people in a household, with the help of data aggregators, using the household’s IP address.

Privacy Concerns

Although Vizio provided some notifications about its privacy practices, the complaint alleged these were not enough to put consumers on notice that their viewing habits were being tracked:

Consumers have no reason to expect that Defendants engaged in second-by-second tracking of consumer viewing data by surreptitiously decoding content and sending it back to their own servers. Further, Defendants’ representations were not sufficiently clear or prominent to alert consumers to their practices related to data collection and sale of licenses. Consumers’ viewing history is subject to certain statutory privacy protections, such as the Cable Privacy Act. 47 U.S.C. § 551.

Vizio is also facing a class action lawsuit over its snooping on viewers.

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