We’re Being Watched, part 1 of 7: Our TVs are watching us

Maxwell Anderson
Feb 11, 2017 · 3 min read
Image for post
Image for post

One out of five TVs sold in the U.S. last year were made by Vizio. That means 20% of new TV owners were being spied on by their TVs.

Vizio was literally watching its watchers — capturing ‘second-by-second information’ about what people viewed on its smart TVs.” Say what?!?

This is a very different thing, and far worse, than what Netflix does. When one of Netflix’s 95 million subscribers streams a show, she knows that Netflix a) tracks that information, b) is only tracking what she watches on Netflix and c) offers her benefits for collecting the data. Netflix sells it as a feature. The more we know about what you watch and what you like, the better recommendations we can make for you.

Unlike Netflix, Vizio was a) secretly collecting this data b) not giving the TV owner any benefit for it and c) tracking everything the person watched on the TV.

That included data from cable, broadband, set-top boxes, over-the-air broadcasts, DVDs and streaming devices. Vizio also is accused of linking demographic information to the data and selling the data — including users’ sex, age and income — to companies that do targeted advertising. — Washington Post

My first reaction to learning about this is anger. But we’ll get to that. First, it’s interesting to understand how they did it. Beginning in 2014, Vizio made this software standard on every TV. Then they “retrofitted older models by installing its tracking software remotely.

Image for post
Image for post
Subscribe to my free weekly email on the biggest ideas in culture and technology

The technology Vizio used for the tracking and analysis surprised me. I had this mental picture of each show or movie having a unique identifier, some sort of digital bar code. That’s either not true or, at least, it isn’t how Vizio designed their tracking program:

“On a second-by-second basis, Vizio collected a selection of pixels on the screen that it matched to a database of TV, movie, and commercial content.”

The TVs didn’t capture show titles and put them in a database. They grabbed a few pixels and had a computer match those pixels against a database to determine what the show was. As Lesley Fair reports, “Vizio captured as many as 100 billion data points each day from millions of TVs.” It’s the visual equivalent of using Shazam to identify a song by having it listen to a few bars. The only way this works is if Vizio has a pixel by pixel database of every show and movie ever made.

Back to my anger. Forgive the language, but I am pissed. I buy a TV and, without telling me, the makers track what I watch and sell it to advertisers? I don’t own a Vizio but I’m waking up to the fact that this kind of thing is becoming less unusual.

The more I learn, the more I conclude we are fools if we don’t realize we cannot take our privacy for granted. We are marching into a new era of surveillance. It is an era in which some company or government is monitoring your every behavior, habit and attitude. We are constantly being measured, analyzed and manipulated. We are being watched.

This week, I’m posting seven pieces — one a day for the next week — on how your private life isn’t so private anymore.

Read widely. Read wisely.

Max

PART 2 of this series: What your wifi knows about you

If this is a topic of deeper concern for you, check out my previous reader, Privacy No More.

These smart TVs were apparently spying on their ownersby Haley Tsukayama in The Washington Post (3 minute read)

“What Vizio was doing behind the TV screen” by Lesley Fair on the FTC’s blog. (4 minute read)

THE WEEKEND READER

READ WIDELY.

Maxwell Anderson

Written by

I publish The Weekend Reader. Subscribe at www.maxwella.com I’m also a founding partner of www.saturnfive.com.

THE WEEKEND READER

READ WIDELY. READ WISELY. The Weekend Reader explores technology, culture and the meaningful life in the modern world. I share the most valuable writing from multiple sources to explore the ideas and trends shaping our world.

Maxwell Anderson

Written by

I publish The Weekend Reader. Subscribe at www.maxwella.com I’m also a founding partner of www.saturnfive.com.

THE WEEKEND READER

READ WIDELY. READ WISELY. The Weekend Reader explores technology, culture and the meaningful life in the modern world. I share the most valuable writing from multiple sources to explore the ideas and trends shaping our world.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store