TV maker Vizio is paying $2.2 million to settle charges over software on some of its smart TVs used to collect viewing data without consumers’ consent.
Starting in February 2014, Vizio captured information on 11 million consumer TVs about information about what viewers were watching on cable, streaming services and over-the-air broadcasts without TV owners’ knowledge or consent, according to a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission and the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General. The agencies announced the settlement Monday.
That information, along with demographics data including sex, age, income, marital status and home ownership, was sold to third parties who used it for targeting advertising and other purposes, the agencies charged.
Under the federal court order, Vizio is required to get consent for data collection and sharing, and prohibits misrepresentations about confidentiality of data collected. Vizio must delete any data collected before March 1, 2016 also, and implement a comprehensive data privacy program with reviews of the program every two years.
“This settlement stops Vizio’s unauthorized tracking, and makes clear that smart TV makers should get people’s consent before collecting and sharing television viewing information,” writes Kevin Moriarty, an attorney with the FTC’s division of privacy and identity protection, in a blog post today.
He noted that consumers with older Vizio TVs can find information about the automated content recognition software in the TV settings menu.
Vizio General Counsel Jerry Huang noted in a statement sent to USA TODAY that its software “never paired viewing data with personally identifiable information such as name or contact information, and the Commission did not allege or contend otherwise.”
The resolution, he said, “sets a new standard for best industry privacy practices for the collection and analysis of data collected from today’s internet-connected televisions and other home devices. … Today, the FTC has made clear that all smart TV makers should get people’s consent before collecting and sharing television viewing information and VIZIO now is leading the way.”
Smart TVs listening to consumers gained some attention two years ago when it was learned that Samsung’s smart TV software allegedly had “always on” features. (Before that, similar concern concerns were raised over Microsoft’s Kinect audio and video controller for the Xbox 360 video game console.) The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC in 2015 over Samsung’s smart TV software and its “always on” nature.
The FTC has not announced any action on that complaint and Samsung put out a statement at the time that its Smart TVs can be disabled at any time and that it only collected voice commands and texts to “provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. Samsung will collect your interactive voice commands only when you make a specific search request to the Smart TV by clicking the activation button either on the remote control or on your screen and speaking into the microphone on the remote control.”
The Vizio issue is somewhat different in that involves viewing history data tracking, says Claire Gartland, director of EPIC’s Consumer Privacy Project. “We are glad to see the FTC taking action here because this is issue we’ve raised,” she said. “We are seeing more and more people paying attention to these issues.”
EPIC has also asked the FTC and the Department of Justice to investigate the growing category of “always on” devices that record consumer voices because they may violate federal wiretap laws.
“Americans do not expect that the devices in their homes will persistently record everything they say,” says EPIC’s letter to the agencies. “By introducing ‘always on’ voice recording into ordinary consumer products such as computers, televisions, and toys, companies are listening to consumers in their most private spaces. It is unreasonable to expect consumers to monitor their every word in front of their home electronics. It is also genuinely creepy.”