There are a lot of unexpansive smart TVs on the market. Have you ever thought about why they got so cheap? Actually, if you remove “smart” functionality from a smart TV, it will become more expensive. TV manufacturers are tightly involved in content production, advertising, marketing, data mining. Like Google and other online giants, smart TV manufacturers collect and trade user data.
During a recent experiment done by The Washington Post, journalists tracked how the largest TV makers record everything users watch. According to stats, the average American spends about three hours a day watching television. Although TV viewing history does not contain any financial data or confidential search queries, this history allows interested parties to create a detailed consumer profile. This is highly valuable information for advertisers. They are willing to pay for it a lot of money.
TV manufacturers use this opportunity. Millions of TV buyers give their permission to collect such data as the corresponding menu item is turned on by default. Everything is OK from a legal point of view. If you do not want to share your watching history, you can, at any time, remove the checkmarks, which are usually hidden deeply in settings.
Automatic content recognition (ACR) systems
TVs record and send to the server the snapshots of the screen, regardless of the source of the signal, whether it is a DVD player, cable TV, application, or streaming. Servers use automatic content recognition (ACR) systems. ACR technology is ten years old.
Taking fingerprints of the screen, TV converts several dozen square fragments of pixels scattered across the screen, into a string of numbers. This line of numbers then transmitted to the server together with the unique TV identifiers.
The fingerprint is compared with a database of known content. The algorithm is similar to the work of the Shazam app; only this is applied for video. Youtube uses similar mechanisms.
The final product is a per-second journal of screenshots of various content, which TV manufacturers sell to about 30 different companies. Some manufacturers do not sell this information directly. Instead, they sell targeted ads after profiling users. ACR systems work with all manufacturers of smart TVs.
TV manufacturers insist that they do not violate privacy as collected data is technically not personal information since all family members and even guests watch TVs. However, big data analysis allows us to separate information and identify individual user profiles.
From the point of view of advertisers, the use of TV fills the gaps in user tracking, since they already have data from computers and smartphones.
Data mining is done by special companies that link the history of watching TV with the activity of users on the tablet, laptop, phone, wearables, and even including shopping in physical stores.
Not only TVs but also other gadgets are gradually “getting smarter” to such an extent as to track user behavior. For example, a well-known manufacturer of headphones Bose has recently updated the user agreement. In the new edition, the buyer of the Bose headphones must agree to the collection and sending of data. The list of information collected includes:
- Activation time of various functions / settings
- Time and date of use
- Devices to which headphones are connected
- Sound volume
- Time zone
- Information about the audio stream:
- Stored content
- Listened radio stations
- Artist names
Users report that the collection and sending of information occur after installing the Bose Connect application. It is not necessary to install it, but they say that in certain versions you can’t activate the noise-canceling button in the headphones without an application.
Everything is voluntary
David Balaban from Privacy PC says that 90% of TV buyers voluntarily agree to take screen prints and send data to the server. Most viewers don’t care, and some are even happy to help the television industry. At the same time, it took great efforts to coordinate with the FTC a window design with a highlighted “Accept” button.
On Samsung TVs, ACR permission is hidden in the Terms and Conditions menu. The option “I agree to everything” is also pre-selected and it is not immediately clear that you can refuse.
According to manufacturers, with better data mining, users will get more relevant ads, and television networks will earn more money, which can lead to better TV shows and, possibly, even fewer ad breaks.
User surveys reveal that most of them do not really realize the full extent of profiling. Most people do not see anything wrong about the fact that somebody knows what movies they watch. After all, there is already such a saying: “Google already knows everything,” and there is no point in hiding.