In defense of smart TV spy

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Let's throw a medal of bravery to Bill Baxter, CTO of Vizio, who explained in all honesty why modern smart televisions, even the most efficient, have become so cheap.

Sending to Grouvy Today's Nilay Patel, Baxter acknowledged that Vizio can monitor everything that users watch, anonymize this data and sell it to marketers or use it to serve targeted ads. These methods, as well as the occasional rental of movies or the purchase of television shows, help Vizio make money long after selling the television itself. According to Baxter, a silly television without Internet access would probably cost more than a comparable smart TV because of the low profit margins of the hardware and its inability to generate additional revenue eventually.

If you have a few minutes, try to find another example of a TV provider manager describing "post-purchase monetization" in a way as simple as that of a mainstream publication. You will not do it because the truth does not sound right. Two years ago, Vizio was fined by the FTC for hiding its data collection practices. She is still the subject of a class action, which could explain why Baxter has become so direct.

However, no frank discussion about compromises related to monetizing user data goes unpunished, and Vizio was quickly pilloried by a wave of follow-up stories, many of which said that "Vizio is spying on you" in their securities. The usual arguments that caused the panic were then followed: the software is unreliable for TV manufacturers, smart TVs are in fact monitoring devices and you get what you pay for with cheap hardware.

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This is not entirely false, but it lacks the nuance that could help privacy-conscious users navigate the smart TV and video landscape. They also avoid an ugly truth: the current situation is far better than the imaginary alternative that everyone return to a silly television.

TV follow-up explained

The most confusing aspect of modern smart TVs is a technology called Automatic Content Recognition, or ACR, which basically works as a detective who collects fingerprints. The TV takes a snapshot of the pixels displayed on the screen and then compares them to a TV program database to determine what you are watching. Most smart TVs today use this technology, which can work with anything happening on the screen, including video from external cable decoders that are not connected to the Internet.

ACR can be used for good. Roku-based TVs from companies such as TCL and Sharp, for example, use this technology to continuously look for episodes of what you're watching via an antenna or cable box. But in most cases, TV makers use ACR to take advantage of users' viewing habits, whether by targeting ads or selling anonymized viewing data to marketers. The data and metrics company Nielsen has even developed a way to replace cable channel ads with targeted internet ads.

As scary as it sounds, it's pretty easy to turn it off. The Grouvy Today has an excellent guide (with pictures!) To disable ACR on all major TV brands. You can also go further by not connecting your TV to Wi-Fi, making it a silent TV.

rokumorewaystowatch Roku

Roku uses ACR for both targeted ads and for its "More Ways to Watch" feature, which allows you to stream episodes of what you watch on cable or from an antenna.

Disabling the ACR is not a panacea any more than disabling Wi-Fi and using an external streaming device. Read Roku's Privacy Policy and you will soon realize that there are many other ways to track and monetize your behavior using the company's smart TV software and streaming devices. Roku knows your IP address (and, by extension, your location). He knows what devices are on your network. And of course, he knows what apps you are using and what you are looking for on Roku products. Roku then combines this information with other data, for example your web browsing activity on other devices via tracking cookies, to refine its targeting by advertising.

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Roku is hardly alone. Amazon collects information about your online activity and monitors your use of products such as Prime Video. He then uses this data to target ads. Google also leverages your web-based business and products like Chromecast to power its ad machine. Apple generally lives up to your privacy better than other big tech companies (for example, it does not track your browsing activity and even prevents others from doing so), but it does collect information about how you use it. Apple TV and other products for broadcast. targeted ads. I would say that this form of tracking, which extends far beyond the television itself, is more frightening than automatic content recognition.

Again, you can reduce this data collection, but you can not stop it completely. Individual apps can always include their own ways of measuring usage and may even link data to your web activity to serve targeted ads. (See, for example, Pluto TV's privacy and cookie policies.) In the absence of stricter regulations, all the use of the Internet – and, by extension, streaming TV services – is a deposit of privacy.

So you can decide that the entire streaming TV business is too scary and return to cable. But then even the cable company can gather information about your viewing habits and sell the data to advertisers. And starting in early 2017, cable companies no longer even need permission to sign up to track your Internet usage patterns, which they could probably use for even greater targeting.

A question of compromise

I do not want to be fatalistic about all this. On the contrary: instead of considering that smart TV publishers are useless, it is better to consider TV streaming in general as a series of privacy choices and compromises.

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You can, for example, disable the ACR, but you may be missing out on more beneficial uses of technology, such as Roku's "More Ways to Watch" feature. You can cut your TV off the Internet, but you will have to spend more on a streaming device that may have its own privacy issues. You may decide to use only ad-free services, such as Netflix, but you will then be cut off from certain types of ad-supported content (including news and live sports) that you might want to watch .

You can also align with Apple and its position that "privacy is a basic human right", but you will pay about $ 130 more than other companies' equally powerful streaming devices. Even installing a device such as Pi-hole to block ads on your entire home network entails own costs and complications. In the end, you decide where to draw the line.

viziohomekit Vizio

Vizio now brings Apple AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support to its SmartCast TVs, including current models.

At the same time, you can decipher the idea of ​​"post-purchase monetization" on smart TVs, but then encourage TV makers to apply hardware upgrades instead of upgrading their existing TVs. It's no coincidence that Roku, whose business is based on advertising revenue, continues to update the oldest smart TVs from 2014, with the same Roku engine. Similarly, Bill Baxter of Vizio pointed out that making money with software helps the company justify the development of new features such as AirPlay. 2 and HomeKit, which will allow Smartcast TV owners to control their TVs from Apple devices.

In other words, the benefits of smart TV software – and the data collection they allow – outweigh the disadvantages. And even if you completely disable the Internet features of your TV, you benefit from their existence because they reduce the cost of hardware.

I would bet this argument was the main reason why Baxter started by talking about data collection and monetization. But he should have known that it would not make the most friendly headlines.

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