Privacy is paramount to most individuals, and you wouldn’t want the gadgets in your home giving away your top secrets. This is why we have made this review on how to stop your smart TV from spying on you. you might be wondering if smart TV actually spies on their owners, well you’d have to read through this guide to find out.
What makes a TV smart?
The major feature separating smart TVs and not-so-smart TVs is an internet connection. Nearly all smart TVs come equipped with both an Ethernet port and built-in Wi-Fi — some older models may require an adapter to enable the Wi-Fi functionality — so they should be able to connect from anywhere in your house. Generally speaking, Wi-Fi should be fast enough for most purposes, but if you plan on streaming games or 4K Ultra HD content, you might want to hardwire to your network instead.
An internet connection is primarily used to stream television shows and movies from a variety of apps and services, like Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and YouTube (among others). Occasionally, there will be free stuff available (like on Crackle, Tubi TV, Pluto TV, or the Roku Channel for Roku TVs), but for the most part, you’ll need to subscribe to these services to access their content.
Many smart TVs also have web browsers baked in — though these are typically unwieldy and frustrating to navigate — and some even have cameras for use with video-conferencing apps.
However, because they are always connected to the internet, those TVs can be a potential risk.
ACR: Automatic Content Recognition
A technology called automatic content recognition, or ACR, attempts to identify every show you play—including those you get via cable, over-the-air broadcasts, streaming services, and even DVDs and Blu-ray discs. The data is transmitted to the TV maker, one of its business partners, or both. And manufacturers’ privacy policies indicate that they can share the information with lots of other companies.
ACR can help a TV recommend shows you might want to watch. But the data can also be used for targeting ads to you and your family, and for other marketing purposes. You can’t easily review or delete this data later.
The technology was in the news in 2017 when Vizio got in trouble with federal and state regulators for collecting such data without users’ knowledge or consent. The company eventually paid $2.2 million to settle cases with the Federal Trade Commission and the state of New Jersey.
This summer a federal court approved a $17 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit stemming from Vizio’s data collection.
A result of that case is that TV companies know they need your permission before collecting viewing data. You have the opportunity to decline as you set up a new TV. However, you’ll need to read each screen carefully; you can’t just click “okay” to all the privacy policies and user agreements—and there are a lot of screens to click through.
It can be even trickier if you’ve already been using the TV and now want to turn off ACR. The settings are often hard to find. Below are instructions for the major smart TV platforms covering sets from LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio; Android TV sets from companies such as Sharp and Philips; Roku sets from brands including Hisense and TCL, and Amazon Fire TV Edition sets from Toshiba and Insignia.
Even if you turn off ACR, your smart TV will continue to collect information for its manufacturer, possibly including your location, what apps you open, and more. The only way to prevent that is to avoid connecting to the internet, which means ceasing to use it as a smart TV.
Like your PC or any device, the minute you connect your smart TV to your Wi-Fi, it relays your location, the TV’s information, and more. To help protect yourself, don’t keep your smart TV connected to your Wi-Fi and use a third-party set-top box or stick. They have more features to help you stop tracking — more on that below.
Prevent Spying and Ad Tracking on Set-top Boxes
Your set-top box is keeping track of what you watch via the apps you have installed on it. You can do your best to limit ad-tracking, though. When you turn off ad tracking, it notifies providers like Netflix or Amazon that you don’t want to be tracked. But there’s no guarantee it will happen as Roku or Apple can’t enforce it.
Hackers who gain access can control your TV and change certain settings. Using built-in cameras and microphones, a smart and capable hacker can spy on your conversations. In November 2019, the FBI issued a warning about the risks of smart TVs to your privacy and offered several recommendations.
The FBI noted that TV manufacturers and app developers have the ability to listen to and watch you. But a potentially more serious threat comes from bad actors who gain access to your unsecured television and take control by changing channels, adjusting volume levels, and even showing inappropriate content to children.
At worst, they might turn on your TV’s camera and microphone to spy on you or use that access to find a backdoor into your router and other connected devices.
So yes, smart TVs can actually spy on you.
FBI’s Best Practices
This all sounds like the worst type of nightmare scenario, but it’s one that shouldn’t make you afraid to use your smart TV. The FBI offers a few guidelines and best practices to better ensure your security and privacy:
- Know exactly what features your TV has and how to control them. Do a basic internet search with your model number and the words “microphone,” “camera,” and “privacy.”
- Don’t depend on default security settings. Change passwords if you can—and know how to turn off the microphones, cameras, and collection of personal information if possible. If you can’t turn them off, consider whether you are willing to take the risk of buying that model or using that service.
- If you can’t turn off a camera but want to, a simple piece of black tape over the camera eye is a back-to-basics option.
- Check the manufacturer’s ability to update your device with security patches. Can it do this? Has it done it in the past?
Smart TV Manufacturer Efforts to Improve Privacy
In perspective, it might seem that all the privacy protection falls on your shoulders as a user. Fortunately, TV and cable box manufacturers are wising up. Routers manufactured in the past few years are generally more secure than their older counterparts.
That said, the Federal Communications Commission dropped plans over three years ago to require cable providers to unlock their boxes for third-party developers. If the plan had been approved, cable consumers would have been able to choose their set-top boxes for more customized functionality and greater security. So, it’s wise to take your proactive effort for the sake of your privacy and safety.
How to Stop Your Smart TV From Spying on You
Unplugging from the internet is the most effective way to eliminate cybersecurity risks, but it’s highly impractical in this modern era.
To help you protect your privacy, we can offer guidance on how to prevent your smart TV from spying on you. Initially, you’ll want to check each of your television and internet devices for security and privacy settings. The following devices in your home might have settings you can access and change:
- Streaming sticks and streaming boxes
- Smart televisions
- Set-top cable boxes
- Internet router
You can also check for any hardware features that are built into your devices. Being aware of any microphones or cameras helps you to be extra thorough as you go through your settings. Take an extra step to research your device models online, as other users may have discovered hidden cameras or microphones.
Don’t Use a Smart TV App on Your Phone
Another way tracking information can be relayed back to the home base is by installing a smart tv manufacture’s mobile app. So, if possible, don’t install those new apps on your phone just because you can. As you use a Samsung remote app, for example, it will send all sorts of data points back to the mothership. And while you’re at it, forget installing the Roku or Fire TV app on your smartphone, too.
Also, you might wonder, “do smart TVs need antivirus protection?” The short answer is no, not for the device itself. However, smart TVs are just one possible breach point in the larger Internet of Things. So, to be safe, you’ll want to protect yourself against malware.
Especially for your frequently used internet devices (such as your laptop or smartphone). With this in mind, it’s best to get an antivirus software suite to protect all these devices, as they also keep botnets and other malicious breaches off your devices as well.
It’s virtually impossible to buy just a “dumb” TV anymore. So, your best bet is to never connect your TV to Wi-Fi. And just connect a Roku, Apple TV, or other external devices. Then you can disable or limit tracking through it, but still, that won’t block all tracking.