Vizio Smart TVs have been spying on you for years, lawsuit finds

Vizio has been ordered to pay out $3.7 million after a lawsuit found it was tracking the viewing habits of millions of consumers.
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Anyone who owns a Vizio Smart TV take note, the company has just been rapped for secretly tracking your viewing habits and selling the data to advertisers.

The TV company has settled a lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission and New Jersey Attorney General this week for $2.2 million plus a $1.5 million fine, after it was found to have been tracking what people were watching on millions of TVs across America.

Vizio has sold 11 million internet-connected TVs since 2010 and starting 2014, it began automatically tracking what consumers were watching and transmitting the data back to its servers – the company even retrofitting its older models by installing tracking software remotely.

This, the FTC and state of New Jersey alleged in the suit, was done without clearly telling consumers or getting their consent.

It gets worse. Once they got the data – collecting 100 billion data points every day by monitoring pixels on the screen that it matched to a database of TV and movie content – they then sold consumers' viewing histories to advertisers and other third-parties.

And it gets worse. It wasn't just national viewing trend data it was selling. The company also provided owners' IP addresses to data companies, who matched the address with an individual consumer or household.

What does this mean? Well, although Vizio's deals with third parties prevented identifying consumers by name, it could figure out things about them, such as their sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education and home ownership.

Using this information, advertisers targeted these households across their various internet-connected devices.

What's more, they could also use these IP addresses to check on the effectiveness of TV ads, for example seeing whether a consumer visited a particular website after seeing an ad, or whether they've watched a particular TV show after seeing online trailers – data used to evaluate the effectiveness of ad campaigns.

How it 'told' consumers

Information would appear on TV screens announcing a new setting called "Smart Interactivity." When customers sought out more information, they were told the feature would "enable program offers and suggestions," but didn't state that it would involve data collection.

The FTC and New Jersey alleged that Vizio failed to disclose the nature of this setting and "misled consumers with its generic name and description."

It was only in March 2016, when the case against the company was pending, that Vizio issued a pop-up notifications onto TVs that explained more clearly that they would be collecting data from televisions.

To settle the case, Vizio has agreed to stop unauthorized tracking of customers and to more prominently disclose its data collection practices, obtaining consent before proceeding.

The company must also delete most of the data it's collected, pay $1.5 million to the FTC and pay a civil penalty to New Jersey of $2.2 million.

Vizio general counsel Jerry Huang said in a statement the company was "pleased" to reach the resolution with the FTC.

"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," he said.

How to stop tracking on Vizio Smart TVs

Vizio has instructions on its website, but The Verge simplifies it as follows:

Go into Menu → System → Reset & Admin. On that screen, you’ll see an option called “Smart Interactivity”; you’ll either need to turn that off, or dive one menu deeper, into a section called “Viewing Data,” and turn that off. Either way, you’re done once it’s disabled.

If you have a Vizio SmartCast set, don't worry, the tracking software was never turned on in the first place.

You probably won't be surprised by this, but Vizio isn't the only TV company that is tracking data in some way or another.

The Wirecutter has this guide on how your data is being tracked by your Smart TV, and how to change the settings.

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