/ Technology

Is your smart TV watching you?

TV in eye

Targeted advertising is big business, and you are the product. You might be used to this online, but what if your smart TV was snooping on you and using that to serve you ads? Well, that’s exactly what could be happening.

When you agree to your smart TV’s T&Cs, did you know you could be giving permission for the manufacturer to track what you watch? Is this an invasion of your privacy?

Smart TV spying: the story so far

I’ve nothing against smart TVs. As Which?’s TV reviewer for, I buy, test and recommend plenty of them each year. However, our investigation has found that smart TVs can track you every time you change channel, press a button on the remote or visit a website using the browser.

This can give you more personalised recommendations for things to watch, but your data could also be used to provide targeted advertising on your smart TV’s homescreen.

Some TVs allow you to block tracking, but this can result in stripped back smart TV features that are almost unusable. In some cases we found that if you disagreed with the TV’s T&Cs you couldn’t even access the apps and web browser on your TV.

Plus, if you’re unhappy with TV tracking you could struggle to return it to the shop, as this could be viewed by the retailer as a moral objection, rather than a fault covered by your statutory rights.

Too smart for their own good

I think smart TVs have become too smart for their own good. Manufacturers should keep tracking to a minimum, be 100% transparent about what they’re doing, and give you options to opt out that don’t mean you lose significant features.

Taking this one step further, should you be able to choose whether ads are displayed on your smart TV homescreen? After all, you don’t want them popping up on your PC’s desktop or on your smartphone home screen, so why should a TV be any different?

Do you think that smart TVs tracking what you do is a worrying development, or are you happy to accept this if you get more personalised services?


While I do not have a smart TV this is something I do now.

I do some work for a market research company and when I watch things via ITVPlayer / BBCIPlayer and DVD’s via VLCPlayer my webcam is turned on and the company is tracking what parts of the screen I watch.

It started off last year with ITVPlayer due to the adverts. But it’s grown & pretty much works on everything I stream now.

Some people will find this very uneasy and I do not agree with Smart TVs doing this. But as I get paid for it I am happy to help companies out.

Since roadside advertising has virtually disappeared, TV commercials are avoided through the use of PVR’s, and shopping is done on-line nowadays, attracting our attention and influencing our purchasing intentions has become increasingly difficult. Newspapers and magazines are still heavily dependent on advertising but it is very easy to ignore it so commercial organisations are on the look-out for any alternatives. I find it annoying that on-line browsing is increasingly affected by targetted advertising picking up on products I have looked at elsewhere; I have to accept that is the price I have to pay to read an on-line version of a newspaper because I am no longer buying a paper copy. However, I draw the line at targetted and personally aimed advertising being channelled into our living room through a TV set with no neutral way of preventing it. If we have friends round, or staying with us, and spend some time watching a film, are we to have a resumé of our recent spending aspirations presented to us on-screen for perusal and an inevitable conversation topic? I am surprised that Terms & Conditions that enable this without a no-penalty opt-out facility are not substantively classified as inherently unfair.

By connecting my laptop to the ‘ordinary’ television I have most of the smart features of the expensive set. So far, my surfing habits have not generated any (obvious) targeted advertisments. I would take exception to a television that did this to me and I hope enough people would do the same to influence the manufacturers and content providers to back off. If the televisions did not sell, this intrusion would be seen as counter-productive. Of course, if people were unaware of this until after the purchase of a smart set, there should be some way of legally protesting. Not only would they be cross at the intrusion, but they would be angry at the loss of facilities, if these were conditional on targeted ads. If the shop (in what ever form) did not make these terms and conditions clear to their customers, they could also be taken to task for negligence. In this uncertain world companies seem to get away with a great deal while insisting that it is all for our benefit. I wonder how long it will be before society catches up and calls time on such activities?

The latest “smart” device in the US actually takes a voice print so it knows it is you ! This is stored with your address and cards etc by Amazon.

Whether the EU will have any effects on these TV’s etc remains to be seen. The UK is seen to be very much the uncaring nation in the EU on digital freedoms. Possibly because Europeans have long memories on police states unlike the UK or US.

Will not be getting one would rather do without a TV then a new world order one

Thanks for the useful article, I will NOT be buying a Smart TV and if I did I would specify to the retailer that I wanted the ability to turn off tracking still be able to use it.

I object to being FORCED to watch ads, for this reason I unregistered from 4OD who make you site through 3 x 3 minute ad breaks if you are trying to find a specific scene.

4OD refuse to display the content if you have adblock.and treat the customer with real contempt and they wonder why people download content.

I recently invested a massive £9.99 in a NowTV box (AKA a ROKU box) but did not subscribe to Sky or any other channels, instead I installed something called Plex, it provides a Netflix like interface to my downloaded content and it can even serve it to me via the internet on my mobile. It shows trailers from YouTube and reviews from Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad when you consider, No Ads, no subscription and no cost.

I guess one can only hope that app developers will bring out blocking software that maintains functionality. I use adblock and a firefox plugin called Ghostery that is currently blocking 5 trackers from this web page AddThis, Google Analytics, Gravatar, Omniture & Reddit.

I also use the Better Privacy plugin that prevents the Flash storage area being used for cookies that are not deleted when you delete your cookies. Anything missed by these is deleted by ccleaner.

Why do I use these, well in marketing it is called Retargetting, so when you leave Facebook or any other website you will get ads following you. Some sites like ZDnet have 16 trackers!


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MollyB says:
29 August 2014

How hypocritical of Which? to criticize 3rd party internet services for tracking their customers. Why don’t Which? practice what they preach and stop tracking people visiting the Which webpages.

Which have a poor record when it comes to standing up for consumer privacy issues – how many times have Which? mentioned Snowden? and the can of worms he revealed.

Get a Grip

Emma says:
21 October 2014

Technology just keeps getting better but also scarier

Emma says:
21 October 2014

Internet is mostly full of trollups trolling keyboard warriors cowardly humiliating other’s

Reasons to be cheerful are CRT.
Having read the article ‘The spy in your tv’ I decided to stick to my old CRT until such time as the spy can be disabled without loss of function.
There never used to be T&C’s for a tv set and we don’t expect them any more than we do for any other household item. The manufacturers seem to have forgotten that we are the customers and we have the money, we do them a favour in choosing their brand so if any T&C’s are to be set it should be by us. My only T&C is that I don’t want any T&C’s for my TV. Nor do I want to be spied on, have targeted adds or my previous viewing history revealed.
Which ? please keep pushing manufacturers to change their tracking policies etc. because until they do I wont be going smart even though I would love to buy a new tv in 2015

Four months on from the original article. I wonder what if anything has changed.

brian says:
9 February 2015

BBC News 9th Feb 2015….

“Samsung is warning customers to avoid discussing personal information in front of their smart television set.

The warning applies to TV viewers who control their Samsung Smart TV using its voice activation feature.

Such TV sets ‘listen’ to every conversation held in front of them and may share any details they hear with Samsung or third parties, it said.

Privacy campaigners said the technology smacked of the telescreens, in George Orwell’s 1984, which spied on citizens.”

It won’t be long until the TV stops listening if it’s anything like the apps on smart TVs. Orwell had an interesting insight into the future but never predicted the obsolescence of household products.

Here’s the link for those who are interested: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31296188

From the link: “Smart-TV owners would always know if voice activation was turned on because a microphone icon would be visible on the screen, it said.”

Why does this remind me of claims that the Titanic was unsinkable? But all credit to Samsung for letting us know.

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This is how Samba TV is described in Wikipedia [probably by itself] :

“Samba TV . . . is a content recommendation engine and viewer tracking application designed for Smart TVs. . . . (It) develops software for televisions, set-top boxes, smart phones and tablets to enable interactive television through personalization. Through its portfolio of applications and TV platform technologies, Samba TV is built directly into the TV or set-top box and will recognize onscreen content—live or time-shifted—and make relevant information available to users at their request. The software will identify what a viewer is watching, and use that information to deliver targeted advertising throughout the household. Through APIs and SDKs for mobile application software developers, Samba TV is usable on a second screen or the TV itself. Samba TV applications are currently . . . available on over 30 million screens in 118 countries.”

Some viewers might like that. Those who watch shopping channels could be attracted.

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I have merely quoted what is shown in Wikipedia and, as I said, it reads like the company’s own promo and is probably not the whole truth. Unfortunately this is extremely common in Wikipedia. I am not “applying” it or endorsing it. I have no intention whatsoever of allowing such a process into my television viewing, and you are right to post warnings, but it is not out of place to mention that many people do actually like that sort of additional interaction. I don’t think you need to instruct people what to do or not to do: they have been warned; it’s up to them. Posting a link to the full report [is there no executive summary?] would be useful for those who wish to see the detail.

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I have read it, Duncan. It’s scope is awesome but I can’t decide how potentially harmful it is. At least it’s an opt-in rather than an opt-out protocol. Presumably users can cancel the service but I didn’t see any reference to that.

I suppose it’s a logical development from existing media advertising. A reader of The Times will see a different set of adverts from those in the Daily Sport. Someone who watches Love Island on ITV 2 will see completely different ads to someone watching a Channel 5 documentary at the same time, so there is already a considerable degree of coarse targetting going on but the crucial difference is that it is not personalised. A system like Samba TV takes the guesswork out of classifying viewers, it is extremely refined, and it enables highly personalised approaches [including via other devices in the home] by commercial companies which buy the relevant data from Samba TV.

Have there been any reports in the USA of people objecting to this or complaining about the intrusion that follows their viewing habits?

I wonder whether a Samba TV-type system requires regulatory approval in the UK through Ofcom or the ICO.

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I find it hard to believe that 90% of viewers opted-in in 2016.

The wording is:
The opt-in read: “Interact with your favorite shows. Get recommendations based on the content you love. Connect your devices for exclusive content and special offers. By cleverly recognizing onscreen content, Samba Interactive TV lets you engage with your TV in a whole new way.”

Sneaky wording? Probably the promise of special offers that did it.

I have checked our new Panasonic and thankfully can’t find Samba or anything similar. We are snooped on far too much already. Viewing figures have to come from somewhere, so I assume Sky records them somehow, but anything more than that is too invasive and will only lead to further invasion of our privacy.

I expect large numbers of viewers clicked on the opt-in out of curiosity because, as you say, the wording is very sneaky and, while it is no doubt the truth, it is not the whole truth.

Vizio’s breach was in not obtaining consent to harvest people’s data.

Is there any evidence that Samba TV or Vizio are active in the UK or do our regulations prohibit [or seriously inhibit] the gathering and resale of viewers’ data?

An interesting question is whether a smart TV actually knows who is watching it. Half the time it could be the cleaning lady.

As far as I know, satellite TV is a one way process. My speculative guess is based on the fact that for the first year of any contract, Sky requires a landline phone link to its box as part of the contract, so it can interact and one can buy things direct from the television remote control. Sky also uses this to snoop, but how far it targets anything but its own services is not something I can comment on, because I don’t know.
Presumably smart T.V.s are also one way receivers unless they have access to a router. They would need that to display the internet on screen – slowly and badly in my past experience. So, if the house router is connected by ethernet cable only and is password sensitive, a smart T.V becomes dumb. Thus the consumer has a choice of connecting or not. That choice involves a decision to allow the broadcasters into the house to do what they wish with any accessible equipment that isn’t password protected. That’s my current understanding but perhaps others know more…..

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