When you watch your Smart TV, it could also be watching you.
A new report from Julia Angwin at ProPublica reveals that Vizio, a top television maker, automatically tracks the viewing habits of Smart TV owners and shares that information with advertisers in a way that could connect those preferences to what those customers do on their phones or other mobile devices.
Vizio's "Smart Interactivity Program" is turned on by default for its 10 million Smart TV customers, ProPublica reported, and works like this: The company analyzes snippets of what you watch, be it on Netflix or traditional television, and connects patterns in your viewing behavior with your Internet Protocol address -- an online identifier that can be used to pinpoint every device connected from your home. That includes everything from your laptop and phone to your smart thermostat. That information is then shared with Vizio's partners, who in turn could use that data to help to target advertisements.
In an e-mailed response to a Washington Post inquiry, a Vizio spokesperson said the company's data mining programs are part of a "revolutionary shift across all screens that brings measurability, relevancy and personalization to the consumer like never before." Vizio said it shares "aggregate, anonymized data" with media and data companies so they can "make better-informed decisions" about content and advertising strategies.
There are laws that limit how companies share information about video watching habits, including the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). However, Vizio says that those laws do not apply to its tracking service because the company associates IP addresses with the data rather than a person's name or other "personally identifiable information."
It's true that some U.S. courts have held that IP addresses do not constitute personally identifiable information. However, privacy regulators in the European Union disagree. And IP addresses are increasingly used by data brokers to paint detailed portraits of who people are.
Samsung and fellow Vizio rival LG Electronics have similar programs that track Smart TV customers' viewing habits, but only if customers turn on the feature, according to ProPublica.