Why you should revisit smart TV privacy settings

Anton P. | September 30, 2020

A smart TV has become an irreplaceable gadget in millions of households. However, the homely cinematic atmosphere should not overshadow the privacy variable. Once your smart TV joins the online ecosystem, it becomes just as vulnerable as any internet-connected device. Viewers are not the only ones to blame for careless, if not irresponsible, treatment of smart TVs. Manufacturers contribute very little, and unless users investigate further, they remain in the dark. We encourage you to step into the light: learn about smart TV privacy, and suggestions to improve it.

Smart TV boom

The roaring demand for “smarter” devices continues to grow. In 2019, experts valued the global smart TV market at approximately $183 billion. However, forecasts estimate significant growth spurts in the future as most non-smart TVs slowly fade into oblivion. With smart TV potentially monopolizing the market, it could reach $321.8 billion by 2025. Such expansion corresponds to the global adoption of online streaming services. According to 2019 statistics, 46.55 million users subscribed to Netflix in the US alone. With such a tremendous demand, it is no wonder that manufacturers focus on smart TV production. However, while revenues pile up, clients are still unaware of their participation in the ongoing tracking schemes.

Besides hackers sniffing around internet-connected devices, a bundle of third parties regards viewing behavior as critical. Yes, we gladly invite internet-connected tools into our homes. However, technological conveniences come with hidden fees that go beyond one-time charges. Are privacy tradeoffs fair deals? Should we be comfortable with third-parties exchanging and monetizing our information? Sadly, while IoT is innovative and revolutionary, it does not always honor our privacy.

Tracking, ACR, and privacy issues with smart TVs

Missing the fine-print tracking conditions on smart TVs might come naturally. After all, the digital environment teaches us to prefer connectivity from a young age. Nevertheless, smart TVs are essential players in the battle for users’ data. Many of these gadgets employ Automatic Content Recognition (ACR), a fancy word combo for a technology that tracks users.

The integrated ACR generates a massive hub of information, consisting of everything displayed on smart TVs. Most manufacturers share (or sell) this collection to marketers, online services, and other companies. Researchers from Northeastern University and Imperial College London indicate that vendors share consumers’ data with Amazon, Facebook, and DoubleClick. Such treatments have put many companies in cold water. For instance, the Vizio scandal and its negotiations with the Federal Trade Commission left a mark. Hence, covertly turning consumers into analytical test subjects never ends well.

Personalization of the TV-viewing experience is also a priority for most manufacturers. Built-in microphones and cameras turn regular TVs into communication channels. Facial recognition lets your TV decide which channels are suitable for each family member. Last but not least, voice commands allow you to perform necessary actions without pressing remote control buttons. All of these traits work in favor of comfort, not security, however. Manufacturers have the means to monitor your online interactions. However, a worse scenario is that hackers get the same privilege.

Even the FBI considers smart TV privacy and security as highly susceptible to hacks. While manufacturers’ surveillance is at the low end of the risk spectrum, crooks’ attacks are not. Retrieving access to a camera or microphone on your smart TV could mean constant monitoring from unknown sources. And, trust us, such data won’t just contribute to the generation of personalized ads. Compromising footage of people could end up on the black market.

How can you protect your smart TV?

Consumers’ behaviors and overall understanding of smart TV settings are relatively low. According to a study, people overlook smart TVs’ privacy policies due to their inconvenient access and management. If users skip such conditions during the initial setup, they are unlikely to search for them in the future. Furthermore, participants of the study claimed that they feel helpless to stop the intrusive practices. In turn, most of them had no idea about ACR technology. But, most importantly, they were unaware that they could adjust this setting.

Alteration of privacy settings depends on the smart TV model you own. So, we suggest sitting down and navigating through all the available settings. Notice conditions for advertising, tracking, or ACR? Choose to limit ad tracking, and turn off ACR. However, such modification of settings does not prevent third-party apps or streaming services from collecting your data. Privacy setting negotiation should happen with each service provider individually. But, the chances are that your behavior and preferences will still be susceptible to tracking.

More quick solutions to apply

To elevate the privacy and security of your smart TV, consider the following recommendations:

  • Default settings are not your friends. Most manufacturers set specific settings automatically, and most of them are not in favor of consumers. Hence, review the current configurations on your smart TV, and just anything deemed questionable.
  • Consider disabling microphones and cameras. Turn off communication-oriented components by default and enable them only when necessary. Of course, if hackers penetrate your smart TV, they could easily record footage. A classic trick is to place a piece of tape on the camera eye.
  • Software updates are essential. Whenever your smart TV informs you that an update is available, install it immediately. Bugs in your smart TV could work as a gateway for hackers. So, if you patch it in time, the threat will no longer be relevant to you.
  • Anonymity through a VPN. Consumers might feel like helpless test subjects. Their data is either sold to third parties or exploited for analytical market research. Do not assume that there is no escape: bursting the surveillance bubble is easier than you think. A VPN is in charge of anonymous connections. It encrypts traffic, spoofs your IP address, and complicates the third parties’ quests for generating massive consumer information hubs. After securing your smart TV, do not dismiss other threats as well. Your smartphone and computer are vulnerable to external attacks and surveillance just as much, if not more. Atlas VPN operates as the shield, preventing misuse of data and reassuring true incognito browsing for all.
Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.



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