Smart TV spying – are you watching TV, or is it watching you?

Smart TV spying

When you agree to your smart TV’s T&Cs, you may not be aware that you’re permitting the manufacturer to snoop on how you use your TV – from the programmes you watch, to the websites you visit.

This can have benefits – such as more personalised recommendations of things to watch – but data gathered on you and your family can also, in some cases, be used to provide targeted advertising on your smart TV’s homescreen. Is this an invasion of your privacy?

Smart TV spying – tracking, terms and targeted ads

Last year Jason Huntley, an IT consultant, found that his LG smart TV was tracking everything about him and his family. He was shocked to find his children’s names had been sent unencrypted over the internet to LG’s servers; taken from a family video he’d made at Christmas and then watched on the TV.

After Jason published the story on his Doctor Beet blog, it hit the headlines, leading to a still ongoing probe by the Information Commissioner. We got in touch with Jason and he agreed to work with us as we investigated what smart TVs from LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba were tracking about their owners.

Smart TV

Smart TV spying – what we found

Our investigation, published this week in Which? magazine, used widely available techniques to monitor the streams of data coming from both 2013 and 2014 models from each brand. We did various tasks, such as change channel, search the web and play videos from a USB memory stick, and then analysed what the TV transmitted.

Tracking – all the brands track your viewing habits to some degree. We were pleased to see that most data is encrypted, meaning it’s hidden from hackers. However, a Samsung TV beamed our location and postcode un-encrypted when we first switched it on. Samsung said that location data is required to operate the TV, but we think there’s no need to take the entire postcode. LG has temporarily stopped tracking, but declined to rule out restarting it when we contacted the company.

Advertising – Toshiba, Samsung, LG and Panasonic all serve ads to your smart TV’s homescreen. You can stop them from being based on your TV habits, but can’t block them entirely. LG and Toshiba told us that posting ads on smart TVs is ‘standard industry practice’, but Sony doesn’t have them on its TVs, so clearly it thinks differently.

Terms & Conditions – what if you decline your TV’s T&Cs? Well, on Panasonic TVs you can’t use any apps or the web browser. On LGs, you lose apps, and on Samsung and Toshiba TVs, you can’t access the smart-TV services at all. Sony gives upfront options at the set-up stage to block the tracking, and you just lose content recommendations.

Samsung Smart TV remote

What we want from the smart TV brands

All the brands we tested insist they are being transparent with what they’re doing, but we think they could do more. Remember, this isn’t a smartphone app that you downloaded for free; we’re talking about an expensive TV that will be in your home for many years.

Some of the companies we investigated – including Samsung, Panasonic and Toshiba – have agreed to meet with us to discuss our findings. We’re asking the industry for four key things:

  • 1. Keep smart TV tracking to a minimum and encrypt any data on users that is transmitted over the internet.
  • 2. Be 100% transparent and upfront about what is happening in terms of tracking, and why.
  • 3. Allow consumers to opt out of tracking and still enjoy as much of the smart-TV features they’ve paid for as possible.
  • 4. Give consumers a choice about whether to take ads on their smart TV homescreen. Amazon offers a discount on its Kindle Fire tablets if you agree to have ads on the tablet’s screensaver – shouldn’t this be the same for TVs?

Are you worried about smart TVs tracking what you do? Or are you happy to accept some tracking if you get more personalised services? Let us know in the comments below.

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Categories: Televisions

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77 replies

  1. Absolutely unacceptable. Manufacturers need to be much clearer about this so that consumers can make the choice before purchasing instead of presumably finding out once they start using it.

    1. I would not have bought the Samsung smartTV if I had known about the intrusion into my privacy and will not use their products again under any circmstances. Full disclosure should be brought to purchasers attention before sale of product.

  2. LG disable all smart apps on the new T&Cs, the ones that say “we can do whatever we want with all data”

    Which adds some more things to ask for
    1. absolute opt out for children. LG say “children under 13 should be using a smart TV”, which is a get out clause.
    2. EU data protection/safe harbour. They should not be moving data abroad
    3. No to monitoring of: spoken word, data passed through TV (HDMI AV streams)
    4. No to scan USB content except for explicit fingerprinting of music for a better experience -and the ability to opt out
    5. Ability to ask for what data they have
    6. Recognition that TV/move watching data is not an anonymous. There’s a paper, “Robust De-anonymization of Large Sparse Datasets” , which shows how they could combine an anonymous list of netscape users with IMDb data to identify people.

  3. Can someone at Which? explain to me how this is in anyway different to what you do on your website. Are you not tracking us and what we read on your website?

    Similarly, I see plenty of Google adverts for Which?. Aren’t you participating in a targeted advert campaign based on my browsing history?

    I don’t find it shocking that you do, just hypocritical that you are criticising other firms for something you yourselves do.

    1. Hi there, Nic from Which? here.
      You are right to say that Which? uses cookies on its websites, and these are used for two main purposes: a) data collection, which is used to fine-tune our content to better meet our audience’s needs, and b) to market our own products or services. You can read our privacy and cookie policies here: http://blogs.which.co.uk/technology/privacy-policy/
      And here: http://www.which.co.uk/privacy-policy/cookie-policy/
      If you browse a Which? website, we may try to market our products and services to you via an advertiser network, but we won’t use the data ourselves to market other companies’ products to you, nor sell the data to anyone else.
      The second point, which is made very clear in the magazine article but admittedly not in the blog above, is that while tracking is common online and happens when you browse most websites, until recently it’s not been common on TVs – products you pay hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds for, as opposed to (generally) free websites or web services such as Gmail or Facebook.
      On most of the smart TVs we tested you’re served targeted ads on the main smart TV interface – so not within a browser window, but on the equivalent of your PC’s desktop or smartphone’s homescreen. We think that takes the tracking and advertising too far, especially when you’ve paid a lot of money for the TV in the first place – why should the manufacturer continue to profit from you after the initial purchase and without giving anything extra in return?
      I hope that clarifies why we think this level of tracking on smart TVs is excessive, and why we do not think it hypocritical to challenge the manufacturers over their actions. Let me know if you have further queries and I’ll endeavour to answer them promptly.
      Nic

    2. Nic,

      while I accept Which?’s lofty aspirations, I’m curious as to why they need so many trackers. On most pages there are in excess of 13 trackers. These include

      AddThis,
      ADTECH,
      Autonomy,
      Click Tale,
      Google Analytics,
      Kenshoo,
      Maxymiser,
      MediaMath and Quantcast, among others.

    3. The Which? website has the most cookies of any site I visit regularly. I know this because I use Firefox and have a cookie removal add-on installed and it shows me a list of the cookies it has rejected.

      It’s very hypocritial of Which? and is reminiscent of the lame excuses it had years ago when it promoted itself via the awful get-rich-quick competitions in junk mail. What’s most annoying about the Which? website is it’s persistence in trying to get you to accept cookies – the pop-up at the top is presumably designed to force you to accept them.

      So who is the biggest spy – smart TV manufacturers or Which?

    4. If Which really wants to “fine-tune our content to better meet our audience’s needs”, you could alway hold a monthly Cull Party at which you reduce your wage bill by disposing of staff writers who split their infinitives. You can *meet better” but you can’t “to better”.

    5. Fowler’s Modern English Usage divides the world into;-
      those who split their infinitives and don’t know they are splitting their infinitives
      those who do not split their infinitives and don’t know they are not splitting their infinitives
      those who do not split their infinitives and know they are not splitting their infinitives
      those who split their infinitives and know they are splitting their infinitives but do not care.
      He regards the last group as the happiest.

  4. Having just bought a “smart” TV I am appalled to read the content of this article. I (kind of) accept that when I agree to a web-site using cookies on my PC, that they will be tracking what I do, but a TV (which gets used for watching things like home-movies) is a completely different matter. The idea that something so deeply embedded in our home is spying on us is, frankly, a bit creepy. What are our legislators planning to do about this? The large companies will all carry on spying on us until the government stops them, so I will be writing to my MP and I would encourage anyone concerned to do the same.

    1. You must not understand or know how much we are being spied on, In fact they are trying to pass new laws to spy even more, do your research, check
      drudgereport.com and infowars.com, those 2 sites will give you lots of articles from different media reports.

  5. It’s two pronged, though. We demand more and more from our connected devices, yet become anxious and unnerved when our demands mean data will be collected. We have 11 connected devices in our house, and the list will grow – of that I’m sure.

    I’m not that concerned about the tracking, since far more intimate information about us all is held by numerous and leaky government and state organisations, however. And so many people know our names and addresses already I’m not sure our becoming paranoid about a few more is worth it. Just so long as they let us know what they’re doing.

  6. Actually Nic I think the Which justification for the use of cookies is pretty feeble likewise the the location of the targeted advertisment is irrelevent as I just ignore that anyway. What I want as the consumer is the full option to turn the tracking etc off.

  7. My new LG smart TV is superb!
    Or so I thought. LG et al MUST give an easy to set up option to opt out.
    This inclusion of spyware is disgraceful! Is our “Home” Office aware of this unacceptable intrusion into our privacy?
    Would they give a tinker’s fart if they do know?
    Sony for me in future!

  8. I wonder if Samsung do the same with my smart BD PLAYER 6500. It has the same apps as the Samsung TVs and is connected to the internet directly?

    Ditto the latest Humax freeview and freesat Pvrs?

    1. Why not insist that the advertisements for TV items should be compelled to notify would be buyers that their viewing will be tracked and possibly passed on other organisations. The same should apply to salesmen selling these items. I have no doubt it would boost Sony sales.

      Which would be doing a service if it could explain how to utilise ones Router to block these intrusions, as suggested by Merlin

  9. I will buy the Sony, only! I don’t like adverts anyway, have stopped using broadcast programmes, and have no TV license, but only use my TV to see DVD films, and free films. I got sick of the banal programmes, the immorality and foul language, and having contacted programme managers and those who plan what we watch, and being told that I did not need to watch any programmes I didn’t like, and that they weren’t going to censor unsuitable programmes, and finding that it was too irksome to be constantly watching my choices, I decided to send my license back and wait until I could filter automatically stuff I didn’t approve of. I have not heard that that is yet available, so until I do, I add to my DVD collection when I find a good film, and work free at the cinema so as to be able to see all the latest films, and just don’t watch a bad film, only the worthwhile ones. I don’t feel any loss because of the decision, and will never knowingly buy a TV that spys on me.

  10. Am I concerned? Absolutely! I was aware that smart TV’s have some capability to spy on your viewing habits but not to this extent. With a computer you do have some limited capability to stop/delete cookies and spying (I’m starting to use the TorBrowser) and for example I use ‘DoNotTrackMe’ if using Firefox.
    So it would appear you have little or no control how these smart TV’s watch you if you want to retain all the features. In that case I will most certainly NOT be buying one.
    I’m glad Which (very belatedly) is starting to take a bit more interest in this area because it should be of concern to all consumers.

  11. Could Which publish details of how to reduce any tracking for the various manufacturers?

    Also, I wasn’t aware of signing or agreeing to any T&Cs (about anything, not just tracking data) when I first switched on my Samsung smart TV about 18 months ago…

    Surely the ICO needs to investigate this a bit more widely, more thoroughly, and much more quickly!

  12. Luckily I’ve only got an older flat screen TV but no doubt will have to replace it as/when it fails. Shouldn’t Which, as a standard evaluation feature in their TV test results show what models pick up and send what data? Surely this should be a MUST now.

    1. just get a giant monitor then plug in your controlled computer or a cable tv box watch youtube (Cable Companies may also me snooping)
      also never take a pic on any cellphone they upload the pics with GPS locations and time/Date and may possible offer them on a future date for sale to anyone with a credit card (you’ve seen the sites )
      Also Facebook was created for use by the FBI…..

    1. When have politicians ever kept their promises unless it benefits them???????????????

      Data protection seems to apply only for governments and their big business mates along with corrupt officials and the establishment who seem to be getting found out more and more so we can only expect more and more secrecy being enforced about them all.

      Power creates corruption and is proven daily.

  13. It’s worrying. I haven’t yet bought a smart TV so I’ve decided that I won’t buy one until all the Which requests to the industry are agreed and done. It’s funny because unknowingly, I was predicting that TVs would spy on us very soon and be used by shady corporate and government bodies to keep tabs on us. I would even imagine that this will be done without the TV actually being turned on…….watch and wait!

  14. Thanks to the TV Witch? hunt research, I find this is really interesting ; Let’s have some fun – perhaps we can all have a whacking great tea party as this clearly takes the cookie – bisquit/bisket/biscotto.

    On a more serious note how can we rely on GDHQ to do its work and to know what’s up if they can’t paricipate in our leisure time activities? Come back James Bond , I feel I have been served, not just shaken and stirred.

  15. Lot of fuss about nothing, all they pick up (as do most websites etc) is what you watch and other non personal stuff. Folk on Facebook tell the world what they had for breakfast and who they had it with!

    We live in this age and that’s what is going on all round us. If you don’t want a smart tv don’t get one simples !

    1. Not that simple at all. To watch my BDs, I wanted the best 65″ plasma available, so I had to take a lot of extras I didn’t care about: 3D; “Smart”; a camera for Skype; voice control; etc. However, having tested that it will actually connect to the internet, I’ve disabled the connection. (I haven’t yet tried the other extras.)

  16. Sadly this is not unique to smart tv the services providers are just as bad and most chilling are unscrupulous members of the public who can access/ hack into ones systems simply because they have the know-how

  17. I have only just come across the Spying/Watching through TVs conversation. I am in shock as only yesterday after a family member was insisting that through the TV he was being watched and “they” know everything that goes on in the room, and what is being said, and what “they” are saying to him, I went home seriously worried enough to look up Mental Illness help.. The family member asked me if I was thinking it was hallucinations. “Couldn’t I hear them?” Without extending this into a longer story, the person in question lives alone and is already under extreme stress due to being unemployed for three years!!!

    I can understand anyone over-reading the reasons behind the custom by certain manufacturers but it is an intrusion. Where can it really end with modern technology?!

  18. Many internet routers will allow you to restrict outgoing traffic from devices on your home network so you could block the TV from sending information. Unfortunately most everyday users will not have the expertise to set this up.

  19. I bought a Samsung Smart TV 2 yrs ago and have regretted it ever since.
    I refused their T&C’s during registration and they have subsequently blocked all software upgrades. This means very limited internet access on their SMART hub.
    I feel there should be greater visibility of T&C’s before you purchase and full exposure of restrictions if you do not accept their T&C’s.
    My next TV purchase will be dictated by the manufacturers T&C’s and not by flashy performance claims which become irrelevant if you don’t register.

  20. I’m very unhappy about your findings, it is very disappointing to find that nearly all smart devices now do covert tracking of some kind. It should be possible to use tech products without the fear of being watched all the time, so manufacturers should be totally up front about what they’re doing. All devices should have the facility for the user to opt for no tracking whatsoever, without losing the functionality they’ve paid for. This should apply to smartphones, tablets etc as well. As you point out Sony have a better attitude, so it can be done. It’s a big cop out to claim its OK because “everyone’s doing it”. That doesn’t apply to illegal activity, so it should not apply here either, it’ as fine line being drawn as to whether what these manufacturers are doing is illegal anyway.

  21. I purchased a Panasonic TX50AX802B 4K smart tv a few months ago.

    Have discovered it’s using about 10Gb per month bandwidth.

    This is without using any Apps, Internet or catchup !

    My normal usage is about 7 to 10Gb per month, this has jumped to 17 to 20Gb per month. My broadband usage limit is 20Gb per month after which there is a charge.

    Have discovered by reseting the tv to factory conditions the high data usage in only enabled when you accept the Panasonic Home Cloud Terms & Conditions.

    If I do not accept the conditions then no Apps, Internet or catchup is available !

    My previous Panasonic smart tv, a TX-L47WT50B, had no problems like this.

  22. Yesterday, I watched a German programme about the Hurtigruten ships along the Norwegian coast. I had recorded this off satellite. This morning, on visiting the Daily Telegraph website, an advert for the Hurtigruten popped up. Could this be just a coincidence? I have a Samsung smart TV.

  23. I have an LG smart TV. The privacy policy is nothing short of a disgracful abuse of privacy. There is no reason why LG needs to collect this information. Without blackmailing me into accepting these vile terms, all smart functions are disabled. Goods not supplied as described. I also resent after paying £1250 for a TV I have to endure adverts. Damned cheek.

    These facts should be disclosed at the time of sale. Who wants to join me to try to get the retailers to take back these disgusting devices as I feel the the sale if goods act and unfair contracts in law have been breeched.

    I will share my details with anyone who expresses an interest.

  24. Can someone please help me?? I am reading all this information on cameras built into smart tv’s. I haven’t had a tv in years and just got a smart tv, only to find out about the spying. I cannot find any information on if and where the camera and mic are hidden on tv. I don’t have tv service, but it has internet and I have a dvd/vcr player hooked up. And I don’t remember accepting any agreements, but this is a samsung and now I am finding all this out a little too late. I may have to sell it at this point.

  25. I can’t speak for a Samsung set. During the setup, my LG would not let me agree to the terms and conditions of use unless I agreed to their “privacy” policy, which I do not agree to.

    Did someone setup your TV for you? I recommend you factory reset your TV and run though the setup and watch for points where you need to agree to any terms or privacy policy. Please read them. If you do not agree to them, then take the TV back to wherever you bought it and demand your money back. You should not be expected to sign unfair terms and conditions just to use a TV set, “smart”or otherwise.

    To anyone else reading this forum, please stand your ground and do not let retailers and manufacturers get away with their disgusting abuse of your custom.

    I am still fighting Currys for my money back.

    If all you want, like I did, was the ability to watch video on demand from any source, use any TV with an HDMI input and a Roku 3 box. This little gem will set you back less than £100 and let you choose from hundreds of channels. And it will be a lot cheaper too.

    1. the tv companies are above the law.
      but the law doesn’t care
      the UK public is ignorant and doesn’t care
      as long as they get their soma tv
      they can be controlled as much as they like

    2. I find it so objectionable what my recently bought Samsung Smart TV expects me to sign up for that I have not enabled the Smart aspect at all! Its a damn cheek. You pay for this and then can’t use it. I use Ghostery and Adblocker on my Mac and that keeps a lot of it off the Mac but can it be done with a smart TV? The reality of 1984 comes in via a tv. Pretty scandalous.

  26. Is nothing sacred these days, they’re coming into our homes and who knows what dirty human beings are watching our children and listening to them. It makes of totally sick at the extremes this country we call home will go to, to invade our privacy. How worse will it get, i wonder.

    1. I totally agree with you, to way extinct will these hackers go to. We have children in our homes and invading our privacy suppose to be a law. Why?? Is it really that serious that u have to seriously watch us in or home. If that’s the case they can have these televisions back. I’ll get a regular television!!! Never had a problem with those.

  27. If I didn’t have so much student loan debt from law soohcl, I would probably take a less stressful, still legal job and start having kids. I need my current job (which is very time consuming and stressful) to pay for the student loans. Wicked cycle. I would also then save more money and take more vacations. Oh what a wonderful life that would be!

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