Written by Colin Asher
Published on December 16, 2019

ACR: Everything is connected 

We wouldn’t have a properly dystopian situation on our hands without a nice little acronym to accompany it, and so, ladies and gents, meet ACR, or automatic content recognition. This smart TV feature makes use of just a few pixels of whatever you’re watching and sends that information back to a massive database. This data about what you watch is then used to target you with ads inside and outside your TV viewing experience. Since your smart TV is probably linked to your home router, it shares the same IP address that identifies your specific household. That shared address means that you can then be targeted — using that TV data — across all the devices connected to your home network. In other words, the same ad you saw on your smart TV can easily reappear on your smartphone. 

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    Perhaps this practice sounds particularly scary because TV preceded the internet, and people remember a time when watching TV seemed to be more of a unidirectional relationship. But your smart TV is also online, and so what’s happening behind the scenes when you watch TV is basically the same as when you go online on your laptop or smartphone — you’re being tracked and hit with ads and content geared to your perceived interests. 

    The way your viewing data is collected is not all that different from the way sites like YouTube or Facebook target you, often by “recommending” you content. After all, who doesn’t want more of what they like? A content recommending service like Samba TV, which is used by Sony and many other brands, is just one such smart TV platform that uses ACR to offer a more personalized viewing experience, while simultaneously using that data to help advertisers target you. 

    On an internet-connected smart TV, this collected content isn’t limited to digital information from shows that you stream via internet services like Netflix, but can also include pixel signatures from regular cable TV and DVDs. And that information can be transmitted from your TV back to the companies every few seconds.

    Pressure on companies for transparent data collection

    Part of the problem here is something that’s been plaguing every facet of internet regulation: user consent and transparency. Smart TVs have been around for a while, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the FTC brought some real heat against the smart TV manufacturer Vizio, which ultimately had to pay $2.2 million for collecting viewing data without user consent. Since then, the regulatory eye has been more focused on smart TV makers. There is now more pressure on companies to be clear about what they’re collecting in the initial terms of service you see upon setting up your smart TV. But there is clearly still a problem. When users of Samba-enabled TVs set up their system, a whopping 90% of them consent to having their viewing data collected.

    Concerns about surveillance

    Now, even the FBI is cautioning people to secure their smart TVs. But, as it turns out, law enforcement is a strange bedfellow with corporate wantonness. To sum up the security connotations of TVs, phones, and the multitude of other smart (IoT) devices that are available today, a recent Harvard University report states that we can look forward to “a future abundant in unencrypted data, some of which can fill gaps left by the very communication channels law enforcement fears will ‘go dark’ and beyond reach”. In other words: the current data-mining business model many tech companies enjoy will make the Feds quite happy too. 

    Like laptops and smartphones, some smart TVs have microphones and cameras in them (though the cameras have reportedly become scarcer in newer models). These cameras and mics pose the same problem that plagues every smart device that can see/hear you as well, namely that corporations can get an audiovisual window into your life and so can hackers. And while the FBI might be cautioning you against TV raiding by hackers, perhaps they should also caution you against TV raiding by the CIA — monitoring you through the camera or microphone while your TV appears to be off — something that the agency has been exploring according to Wikileaks-released documents.

    How can you protect your smart TV?

    In 2018 114 million smart TVs were sold worldwide. In the United States, around 45% of homes had at least one smart TV. And part of the reason smart TVs have been so accessible is that their tracking capabilities help keep prices down. As smart TVs and other smart devices become more tempting to buy, it’s important that the average user knows how to limit the invasing data-collecting by their machines. Here are some things you can do to protect your smart TV.

    • Be careful when you’re setting up your TV. Don’t agree to all the terms automatically, so you don’t miss the chance to opt-out of the data collection. If you’re reading this before you get started with a new smart TV, then consider yourself in the luckier set, because manufacturers make it harder to find and opt-out of their content-collection features once you’ve already consented to them. The way to change the settings varies for every TV, so you will need to look up the specs for your own model.  

    • You can simply choose to go “dumb” and not put your smart TV online. You could then, for example, run your favorite streaming service from your laptop and connect it to the TV’s HDMI port. Of course you will still be subject to whatever innate tracking is happening within the streaming service you’re using, but you’ve somewhat limited its spread. 

    • If you want to keep your TV smart and online, a VPN can help. Securing your home router with a VPN is a great way to encrypt your connection online, which will protect you against hackers and enhance your anonymity online. 

    Our devices have gotten smart (maybe too smart), but that doesn’t mean you have to be dumb about how you use them. The next time you set up a new smart device, make sure you consider what its capabilities are and what you can do to protect your privacy.

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    Colin Asher