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Smart TVs are invading privacy and should be investigated, senators say

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Two Democratic US senators have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate privacy problems related to Internet-connected televisions.

“Many Internet-connected smart TVs are equipped with sophisticated technologies that can track the content users are watching and then use that information to tailor and deliver targeted advertisements to consumers,” Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in a letter yesterday to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons. “Regrettably, smart TV users may not be aware of the extent to which their televisions are collecting sensitive information about their viewing habits.”

The letter asked the FTC to “launch an investigation into the privacy policies and practices of smart TV manufacturers.” When contacted by Ars, an FTC spokesperson confirmed that the agency received the letter from Markey and Blumenthal, but the FTC offered no further comment.

Markey and Blumenthal said federal law hasn’t been updated to account for the potential privacy problems raised by smart TVs. While Congress imposed privacy rules on cable and satellite TV companies long ago, “these protections do not cover data companies using Internet connectivity, rather than cable or satellite systems, to track smart TV users’ viewing habits,” they wrote.

It would be up to Congress to pass new laws for smart TVs. But the FTC can punish companies for unfair and deceptive business practices and already took action against smart TV manufacturer Vizio last year.

Samba TV tracking raises concern

The senators’ letter to the FTC pointed to a recent New York Times report on how smart TVs track users. The senators wrote:

Recent reports suggest that Samba TV, one of the largest companies tracking smart TV users’ viewing behavior, offers consumers the opportunity to enable their tracking service, but does not provide sufficient information about its privacy practices to ensure users can make truly informed decisions. For example, when prompting consumers to opt into their ‘Interactive TV’ service, Samba TV denotes that the service allows users to obtain ‘exclusive content and special offers,’ but does not clearly convey how much sensitive information about a user will be collected or whether the data will be used for targeted advertisements across different devices.

A Samba TV spokesperson told The New York Times that it “will work with any member of Congress on this issue,” and that it already made changes to its opt-in language and policy after a review by the FTC.

Markey and Blumenthal also mentioned the FTC’s February 2017 settlement with Vizio, which agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle charges that it collected viewing habits from 11 million devices without the knowledge or consent of the people watching them.

“By identifying the broadcast and cable shows, video games, over-the-top content like Netflix, and other applications that users are viewing, smart TVs can compile detailed profiles about users’ preferences and characteristics,” the senators wrote. “Recent reports even suggest that smart TVs can identify users’ political affiliations based on whether they watch conservative or liberal media outlets.”

The senators did not suggest any specific actions beyond an investigation, but they said that “Any entity collecting and using sensitive information should comprehensively and concisely detail who will have access to that data, how that data will be used, and what steps will be taken to protect that information. Users should then be given the opportunity to affirmatively consent to the collection and use of their sensitive information, while still having access to the core functions of smart TV technology.”

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