Convenience vs Data Privacy: How Risky are Smart TVs?

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Look for information about smart TVs and you’ll almost certainly come across articles talking about “spying” and data privacy and how to turn off features on your brand new TV. How much of this should you take seriously, and how much is overreaction? Can your smart TV really spy on you? Here’s what you need to know about smart TV privacy.

What can smart TVs do?

Smart TVs have a lot of useful features. They can connect to the internet, and can use apps such as Netflix and other streaming services without needing to connect to your computer or another device such as a Chromecast or Apple TV. They can also often integrate with other smart home technology, and many are beginning to include voice recognition and integration with smart speakers.

Connecting to the internet and to other household devices makes them much more convenient than traditional “dumb” TVs. This is all well and good, but what are you giving up in exchange for all of these features? Does your TV spy on you?

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Smart TVs collect a lot of data

Your smart TV knows what you’re watching, and it’s constantly sending that information back to its manufacturer, or to advertising partners, or both. Many brands use automatic content recognition (ACR) to determine what’s playing on your TV. Every second, the TV will look at certain bundles of pixels across your screen and send them back to the smart TV manufacturer. The company compares these pixels to a content database to determine what you’re watching, and then sells that information to other companies.

This may not seem too scary. In today’s world, we’re becoming used to various companies tracking what we look at and giving us product recommendations and ads based on that data. It can help TV companies and broadcasters determine what content is performing well and what ads they can pair with that content in order to earn money and stay in business. As far as data privacy goes, it might not be much cause for concern.

The data collection doesn’t stop there, however. Smart TVs have access to – and share – your IP address, which allows them to learn more about where you live and what other devices you have connected to the internet. They can use that information to target ads to you not only on your TV but also on other smart devices such as your phone. They can also use it to connect your viewing habits with other information, such as what apps you use on your phone or what loyalty programs you’re a member of. Again, this may not be overtly harmful, and selling data like this allows smart TV companies to offer their products at a lower price. But it’s a lot of data for a smart TV to be collecting from you and selling to unknown companies.

Smart TV companies tend to go out of their way to hide this information and make it challenging to opt out – and you can opt out. There are guides on the internet giving detailed instructions on how to turn off certain smart TV features to prevent this data collection and give you back a little privacy. If you want a smart TV but are concerned about data privacy, this is a good compromise. However, this data collection isn’t the only risk connected with smart TVs.

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Can people hack your smart TV?

This is another issue that, on the surface, may seem fairly trivial. Even if someone did hack into your TV, what could they do? See what show you’re watching? Change the channel on you?

The fact is, a smart TV can give hackers access to other parts of your home network. Even if your home computer is secure, it’s possible to use an unsecured TV to go through your router and access your PC. It’s also possible to use the TV to access smart home devices, giving someone access to your home security. If your TV has a microphone or a camera, a hacker could literally spy on you. It’s enough of a threat that the FBI issued a warning about smart TVs late last year. And while the FBI may be a US institution, its advice is largely applicable to smart TV users around the world.

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The warning doesn’t argue against owning smart TVs altogether, but it does urge consumers to look carefully at what products they buy. Research the model of TV you’re planning on getting: does it have a microphone or camera? Does it have a bad track record for privacy? Has it been vulnerable to hacks in the past? Finding something with a good reputation will reduce data privacy risks.

When you get your TV, check if you can turn off data collection. Also change the device’s password if you’re able to – default passwords are an easy way for hackers to get in. If you bought a TV with a microphone or camera, the FBI recommends turning them off, or putting something opaque over the camera. Finally, check whether there are any security patches for your smart TV and install them as soon as possible.

Are smart TVs worth the risk?

In the end, it comes down to what level of risk you’re comfortable with, and how carefully you manage your device and home security. Any connected device, from a smartphone to a computer, has some amount of risk, and chances are that some companies are already collecting data on you. Decide how important data privacy is to you, research before purchasing a TV, adjust the settings, and make sure your new TV and other devices in your home are password protected. It’s not so much of a problem that you should avoid smart TVs altogether. You just need to make the choice that’s right for you.

What can we expect from future smart TVs?

The smart TV market is a healthy one, expected to grow at a CAGR of 21% between 2019 and 2023. TV screen technology will continue to improve, allowing manufacturers to make thinner and lighter displays, with better display quality. Learn more about the smart TV industry and key vendors, challenges, and trends with Technavio’s market research report.