Published On: May 13, 2024

Smart TV Security: Is Your TV Watching You?

Published On: May 13, 2024
Last Updated on: May 31, 2024
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Smart TV Security: Is Your TV Watching You?

In an era where your TV can suggest what to watch next, it's crucial to ask: how secure is your smart TV?

Smart TV Security: Is Your TV Watching You?

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In today’s connected world, your smart TV does more than just show your favorite shows and movies. It’s a smart device that processes a lot of information and interacts with different content. But there’s a darker side to this convenience. What if your TV is watching you just as much as you’re watching it?

Smart TVs use a technology called Automatic Content Recognition (ACR). This means they can identify what’s on your screen by taking snapshots and comparing them to a huge database. This helps them recommend shows and target ads based on what you watch. But it also means your TV is collecting a lot of data about you without you even knowing.

This data can include everything from the shows you watch to the apps you use and even your location. Some TVs even capture voice data when you use the microphone on the remote. This information is valuable to advertisers, who spent over $18.9 billion on smart TV ads in 2022.

Samsung Ads uses ACR technology.

The idea of your TV watching you and collecting data can be unsettling. In 2019, the FBI warned that smart TVs could potentially be used to spy on us. This warning highlighted the security risks associated with these devices, especially when they are connected to the internet. And with the latest concerns raised by the high-profile case of TikTok and national security, its not a big stretch to be concerned about the data collected by your Smart TV and other connected devices.

Thankfully, some brands are taking this to heart, and are implementing robust security. Samsung seems to be leading the pack, recently announcing that Samsung Knox received Common Criteria (CC) Certification for High Security Standards on their QN900D and QN800D 2024 TVs. This 31-nation benchmark is an international standard for computer security certification, typically used by governments and corporations during procurement of their essential IT assets.

While most TVs won't have that robust level of security, the second best option is to know how to protect your privacy and data. You can start by turning off ACR and other data-collecting features on your smart TV. Here’s how to do it on different TV brands like Samsung, LG, Sony, Roku, Google/Android TV, Fire TV, and Vizio. By following the steps at the bottom of the article, you can enjoy your smart TV without worrying about it collecting as much data about you.

What Actually is Automatic Content Recognition?

Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) is a technology embedded in many smart TVs that analyzes the visual and audio content on your screen to identify what you're watching. Think of it as a Shazam-like service continuously grabbing screenshots and comparing them to a massive database of media and advertisements. These TVs can capture and identify 7,200 images per hour—approximately two every second. ACR's primary function is to collect data on viewing habits, enhancing user experience and targeting advertising.

The Role of ACR in Personalized Advertising

ACR's most notable application is in personalized advertising. By understanding your content preferences, TV manufacturers and app developers can deliver targeted ads more likely to catch your interest. For instance, frequent viewers of cooking shows might see more advertisements for kitchen gadgets or grocery delivery services.

This tailored advertising approach is a huge business; advertisers spent an estimated $18.9 billion on smart TV ads in 2022, according to market research firm eMarketer. Recent advancements in ACR technology have led to even more targeted advertising capabilities. For example, Roku has filed a patent for a system that inserts ads into live feeds based on ACR-recognized content. This could revolutionize how advertisements are delivered during live events, making them more personalized and engaging.

How Your Smart TV Handles Your Data

Smart TVs are not just for streaming; they also serve as hubs for numerous apps requiring personal information, such as login credentials for streaming services, social media apps, camera and communication apps, and even health care apps. Here’s what you should know about how your smart TV manages this sensitive data and its security.

Data Storage on Smart TVs

Your smart TV stores various user data, including passwords, browsing history, and personal preferences. This information is stored to streamline your experience, allowing faster access and personalized settings. However, the storage of such sensitive data raises questions about security. Understanding how this data is protected against unauthorized access and potential data breaches is crucial.

Security Measures and Risks

Many smart TV manufacturers implement standard security measures such as data encryption and secure app development frameworks. However, these platforms are not immune to vulnerabilities. Smart TVs connect to the internet, making them susceptible to the same security risks as other connected devices. Cyber threats such as hacking, malware, and data breaches can expose personal information stored on your TV.

Recent research from Purdue University highlights the urgency of addressing these vulnerabilities. The study revealed specific flaws in smart TV software that could be exploited to gain unauthorized access to user data. Consumers should take proactive steps to secure their data, including regularly updating the TV's software, using strong passwords for TV apps, and being cautious about app permissions.

Evaluating the Security of Smart TV Ecosystems

When it comes to smart TV security, it's essential to consider the robustness of the technologies employed by different manufacturers. Major players like Apple, Google, and Samsung each offer distinct approaches and technologies aimed at protecting user data and ensuring device security.

Apple

Apple applies stringent privacy policies and secure ecosystem principles to its Apple TV, employing a closed system where security is tightly integrated. This reduces the risk of external threats, with minimal data collection and secure processing of information directly on the device.

Google

Google's Android TV and Google TV platforms include Google Play Protect, which scans apps for harmful behavior, offering some security against malware and cyber threats. However, the open nature of Google's ecosystem can introduce vulnerabilities if not properly managed or if devices are not regularly updated with security patches.

Samsung

Samsung has made significant strides with its Samsung Knox security platform, designed to protect the device from the chipset level up. Samsung Knox utilizes a multi-layered security approach that includes secure boot, real-time kernel protection, and encryption, and is battle tested on Samsung phones. This comprehensive security solution ensures your personal information and viewing data are safeguarded.

Additionally, Samsung Knox continuously monitors and protects the device from various threats, maintaining a secure and reliable environment. This type of security, trusted by corporate IT departments to maintain their data security is crucial given the amount of personal data modern smart TVs handle. In a first, the certain 2024 smart TVs acheived the Common Criteria (CC) Certification for High Security Standards, a 31-nation benchmark assessing the security integrity of IT products.

In short, the latest 2024 Samsung TVs are likely the most secure TVs on the market today.

Server Security and Data Management

The security of a smart TV extends beyond the device to the network and servers it connects to. Data collected through ACR and app usage is often stored and processed on servers worldwide.

The Trust Factor with Global Brands

Brand origin can influence public perception and trust regarding privacy and security. High-profile cases like TikTok have drawn attention to data handling practices, with concerns about obligations to government intelligence efforts. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray confirmed TikTok is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and poses a significant concern to national security. Given the prominent placement of your smart TV, and the far-field microphones that enable voice assistant functionality and other data collection TVs could attempt, we question whether other Chinese smart TV manufacturers such as TCL or Hisense would be immune to CCP pressure if push came to shove. While many such threats are speculative in nature, they also can't be ruled out.

Brands like Samsun operate under regulatory frameworks that prioritize consumer data protection. Samsung’s adherence to international privacy standards, coupled with its robust security solutions like Samsung Knox, provides assurance sought by cautious consumers.

Reducing Data Collection on Your Smart TV

Samsung TV in a living room.

Consumer Reports started reporting on this kind of data collection back in 2015 and has been analyzing smart TV data practices in its labs since 2018, incorporating findings into TV ratings each year. While you can't stop all data collection, you can reduce snooping by turning off ACR. This technology attempts to identify every show you watch, including programs and movies from various sources.

Vizio got in trouble with federal and state regulators in 2017 for collecting such data without users’ knowledge or consent. Since then, TV companies have been more careful to ask for permission before collecting viewing data. However, it’s still tricky to opt out during initial setup or later on. Here are instructions for turning off ACR on major smart TV platforms, including Samsung, LG, Sony, Roku, Google/Android TV, Fire TV, and Vizio.

How to Turn Off Automatic Content Recognition

Samsung TVs
  1. On the TV’s remote, click the Home button > Menu > Settings > All Settings.
  2. Scroll down and click on General & Privacy > Terms & Privacy.
  3. Under Privacy Choices, check or uncheck boxes for both Viewing Information Services and Interest-Based Advertisements to control data collection for targeted advertising.
LG TVs
  1. Click the Settings button on the remote control, scroll down > All Settings > Support > Privacy & Terms.
  2. Under User Agreements, find options for Viewing Information, Voice Information, and Interest-Based Advertising. You can toggle these off to limit data collection.
Sony TVs
  1. Go to Settings > System > Samba Interactive TV to disable ACR.
  2. For 2023 models, if Samba TV isn’t present, look for options under the Bravia privacy policy during setup to disable data collection features.
Roku TVs
  1. On the Home screen, go to Settings > Privacy > Smart TV Experience.
  2. Uncheck Use Info from TV Inputs to disable ACR technology.
Google/Android TVs
  1. Click the Settings button on the remote > Privacy > Ads. Reset or delete the advertising ID data.
  2. For Hisense or other brands, look for Enhanced Viewing under System > About > Legal Information to opt out of ACR.
Fire TV
  1. Go to Settings > Preferences > Privacy Settings.
  2. Turn off Device Usage Data, Collect App and Over-the-Air Usage Data, and Interest-Based Ads to limit data collection.
Vizio TVs
  1. During initial setup, choose to decline Viewing Data, Vizio’s ACR technology.
  2. Post-setup, go to Settings > Admin & Privacy to adjust privacy settings and disable Viewing Data.

By following these steps, you can enjoy your smart TV experience with greater privacy and control over your personal data.

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