Vizio Smart TVs Snitch on Viewing Habits to Advertisers

Illustration: iStockphoto

Most smart TVs connected to the Internet do not track your viewing habits by default. But the 10 million Vizio smart TVs sold so far will automatically track viewing habits and share information with advertisers from the get-go unless customers disable the option.

That opt-out default of Vizio’s “Smart Interactivity” feature was discovered by ProPublica doing a close reading of the Vizio privacy policy. Rival smart TV makers such as Samsung and LG Electronics go with an opt-in default that requires customers to actively turn on such tracking. By comparison, Vizio’s opt-out approach means it can begin hoovering up data as soon as customers activate their new TVs.

So what data does Vizio collect? The smart TVs can track data related to whatever TV programming and related commercials you’re watching—whether it’s the latest episode of “The Walking Dead” or Monday Night Football—and link such data with the time, date, channel, and TV service provider. Vizio will also track whether you view TV programs live or later on.

All that viewing habit information gets linked to the IP address that serves as a unique identifier for Internet-connected devices using the same Wi-Fi router.  That IP address serves as the focal point for Vizio’s advertiser partners to reach you—and not just on your smart TV.

Starting from 31 October 2015, the viewing habit information can help marketers figure out which advertisements to display on your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or other wireless devices that happen to share the same IP address as your smart TV, according to Vizio’s privacy policy. In other words, your TV viewing habits related to keeping up with “The Big Bang Theory” may influence the ads shown on your smartphone at home.

Of course, anyone who does not want their Vizio smart TV constantly tracking their programming preferences for advertisers and data analytics companies can turn off the Smart Interactivity option. But requiring customers to opt-out of a feature pushed on them by default certainly represents the sneakier of choices available to companies.

Vizio’s privacy policy also makes a point of saying IP addresses represent “non-personal information” and that it never combines viewing data with personal information. But IP addresses can easily be linked with other information to form a personal profile of a person’s online habits. And many European courts have favored the idea of IP addresses as representing personal information.


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