Source: When your TV spies on you, clarionledger.com
The novel “1984” by George Orwell was required reading for a generation of students. This dark 1949 novel tells the story of government functionary named Winston Smith, who lives in a dystopian world full of surveillance equipment, run by a brutal government bent on controlling every aspect of life. Every home and many public spaces have “telescreens,” large television sets that not only carry government propaganda, but have cameras documenting everything that happens. Nothing is off-limits to “Big Brother’s” prying eyes.
While the world Orwell describes might not much resemble the world we see every day, some privacy experts have been increasingly concerned in recent years about the way our activities are being monitored, not only by the government but also by private corporations. We’ve known for years about companies that collect and sell information about nearly everything we do online. But a recent revelation has many privacy advocates wondering just how far this can go.
Vizio, one of the world’s largest manufacturers and sellers of internet-connected “smart” televisions, last week signed a $2.2 million settlement of charges by the Federal Trade Commission and New Jersey’s attorney general that it installed software on its TVs to “collect viewing data on 11 million consumer TVs without consumers’ knowledge or consent.”
According to the complaint, in 2014 Vizio and a subsidiary company used the sets to collect data from various attached devices and services and paired it with demographic data supplied by Vizio owners such as age, sex, income, marital status and household income. Then, the company sold the information to third-party companies, who used it to market products and services to Vizio customers.
The complaint alleges Vizio’s data tracking — which occurred without viewers’ informed consent — was unfair and deceptive, in violation of the FTC Act and New Jersey consumer protection laws.
Of course, it’s common knowledge that nearly all our online activities are subject to eavesdropping. Sometimes, it’s with our knowledge and consent; other times, it’s sneaky and illicit, and sometimes, is valuable in unexpected ways. For example, law enforcement agencies have sought to collect data from such devices as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home to help provide evidence of crimes.
And such activities are increasing. The “Internet of Things” — in which even common household devices such as thermostats and refrigerators are becoming “smart” and connected through the web — has become a reality before our eyes. “Smart-house” technology promises to make things more convenient for us, but it also comes at a price that may include our privacy.
It’s worth noting that Vizio didn’t break the law by collecting the information in the first place, but rather by not informing consumers it was tracking and using it. And it’s not the first; CNET reported in 2015 that some Samsung TVs equipped with certain voice-activated commands might happen to catch conversations occurring in the room, but Samsung was quick to note this capability was clearly disclosed.
Regardless, it’s clear the electronic devices available on the market today come with a lot of interactivity, which some argue makes for a better experience for the customer. Others, though, worry that all these interactive technologies could be creating a world in which someone’s watching our every move. For consumers trying to balance convenience with privacy, the best solution might be a balancing act between the two.