Consumers have purchased in excess of 11 million internet-connected VIZIO Smart televisions since the year 2010. What people didn’t realize is that during their daily television viewing, VIZIO was watching them. A lawsuit has been filed by the Federal Trade Commission and the New Jersey attorney general.
Unbeknownst to viewers everywhere, in February of 2014, Smart TV manufacturer VIZIO began manufacturing Smart televisions that continuously track what people are watching. The data was transmitted through software made by VIZIO Inscape Services, LLC. VIZIO had the Inscape software remotely installed on all televisions that were previously made and sold without it.
According to a news release, the software has been “allegedly gathering detailed information,” in relation to the commercials and programs being watched, how long each individual watched the programs, and what channels they were watching. The collected data came from over-the-air broadcasts, DVD players, external streaming devices including gaming systems, set-top boxes, and broadband or cable providers. All information was recorded for permanent storage.
Inscape software collected data, including consumer’s IP addresses, MAC addresses, Wi-Fi access points, and even the strength of the Wi-Fi signal. After collecting and storing the information, VIZIO allegedly sold the data through licensing agreements to third parties. VIZIO has been selling the information that they collected for three key uses. They measured the viewing habits of their consumers. VIZIO evaluated how effective their advertising was, and they targeted advertising to individuals based on their viewing habits.
The Huffington Post reported that according to the official lawsuit, “VIZIO got private.” The company sold IP addresses to “data aggregators who then matched the address with an individual consumer or household.” VIZIO didn’t re-identify their customers by name, but they did allow for a multitude of other personal and private details. They sold information such as age, sex, income level, the size of the household, customer degree and education level, and marital status. VIZIO allowed these third-party corporations to target and track customers across all of their devices.
Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino had the following to say about the complaint.
“New Jersey residents enjoying television in the privacy of their own homes had no idea that every show they watched, every movie they rented, every commercial they muted was being secretly tracked by the defendants who then exploited that personal information for corporate profit, as we allege. This kind of allegedly deceptive behavior is not only against the law, it is an egregious invasion of privacy that won’t be tolerated.”
Jerry Huang, the general counsel for VIZIO, wrote, “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.”
After gathering consumer data for years without permission and getting caught doing so, VIZIO has settled with the Federal Trade Commission for a total of $2.2 million. The settlement also includes a payment of $1.5 million to the FTC.
In order to settle the case against them, VIZIO had to agree to stop all unauthorized tracking of VIZIO Smart TVs, as well as older television sets, make certain that all TV collection practices are prominently displayed, and obtain consent prior to the collection or sharing of consumer data. Additionally, VIZIO must procure a privacy program and destroy a vast majority of the data that they have collected over the years. An attorney with the FTC noted that “consumers with older VIZIO TVs can find information about the automated content recognition software in the TV settings menu.”
USA Today reported that in 2015, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint about Samsung’s Smart TV software. EPIC has asked the Federal Trade Commission, as well as the Department of Justice, to continue the investigation of devices that have an “always on” feature. These devices record the voices of customers and may “violate federal wiretap laws.”
VIZIO Smart TVs aren’t the only products spying on consumers. Companies introduce voice recording that is always on into products like computers, toys, and televisions. People don’t expect companies to listen to them while at home in their most private moments.
[Featured image by Dan Steinberg/AP Images]