Four years ago, Edward Snowden accomplished one of the most significant intelligence leaks in U.S. history, confirming to the world that the government really does spy on you. Two years later, Samsung casually warned the public that their Smart TVs could record their living room banter.
Now, even if you’re alone in a room, if that room contains a laptop, computer, or Smart TV, it’s possible that someone out there is listening to you, and even watching you. The worst part? You wouldn’t even know.
A new technology called TVision Insights was recently launched, allowing companies to monitor TV watchers’ viewing habits. This means that they can literally watch you as you watch TV, and the technology even records data on where your eyes are looking, when you’re distracted, and what emotions you’re conveying.
How TVision Insights Watches You Watch TV
I first came across the technology when Edward Snowden tweeted the following image on February 26, 2017.
As you can see, not only can the companies watch you watch TV, but the technology is intelligent enough to pick up on your facial expression, engagement level, and other significant data. This information has provided insight into not only what shows people watch the most or are the most engaged in, but what commercials they prefer to watch as well.
TVision was co-founded by Dan Schiffman and one of his classmates from the Sloan School of Management at MIT. Through the installation of a Microsoft Kinect device, most often used for Xbox video games, on top of TVs, TVision tracks the movement of people’s eyes in relation to the TV. The device can then record even tiny shifts from everyone in the room, and then the company matches the movements to what they’re watching.
The device’s sensors can record minute shifts in all of the people in the room. The company then matches those viewing patterns to shows and commercials using technology that listens to what is being broadcast on the TV.
Since the technology is still very new, it’s currently being voluntarily tested on 7,500 people in the Boston, Chicago, and Dallas-Fort Worth areas (source).
Obviously there are privacy concerns here. The company states that they aren’t storing any images or video footage, and it’s only a voluntary installation, at least for now. But we’ve already seen companies and the U.S. government abuse similar software to spy on us.
How can we guarantee this information won’t be publicized or sold to corporations or the government, since that’s already happened in the past? Where do we draw the line between wanting the latest technical gadgets and wanting to secure our privacy? Is it even possible to have both anymore?
Your TV Could Be Watching You Already
This isn’t the first example of surveillance through TVs, and it probably won’t be the last. In early 2015, Samsung released a statement warning customers that their Smart TVs were capable of listening to and recording conversations.
These TVs have voice recognition software, but this fancy piece of technology comes at a price, and that price is a complete and utter violation of privacy. Samsung actually warned its customers not to have important conversations or disclose personal information in front of their Smart TVs because the audio can be recorded and then transmitted to unidentified third parties.
You can read more about the Samsung controversy in a CE article here.
Vizio TVs were also found to record people, but the company had to pay $2.2 million to settle charges for collecting and selling footage from millions of TVs without the knowledge or consent of its viewers. This is a pretty fair settlement given the fact that they had sold 11 million of these smart TVs. One can only imagine how many people were directly affected by this.
The software, Smart Interactivity, was marketed as a feature that “enables program offers and suggestions” for users. However, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Vizio didn’t actually offer any of these programs or suggestions for more than two years after being sold. The FTC suit, which was filed alongside the Attorney General of New Jersey and the Director of the State’s Division of Consumer Affairs, claimed that Vizio and its subsidiary, Inscape Services, sold data to third parties (source).
The data collected was able to show what programs and commercials people watched, and when. It could also measure the effectiveness of advertisements, as it would use the IP address attached to all of the internet-connected technological devices in your home to see if you recently searched for anything in regards to that commercial. For example, if you watched a McDonald’s commercial and then ordered McDonald’s on your phone, the software would pick up on that and confirm that the commercial was successful. The software can also do this in reverse, so if you see an ad online for a cool show and then you decide to watch it after, the software would pick up on that, too. The software could also target ads to people on their other devices, like phones or laptops, based on what they just watched on TV.
Although Vizio never publicly identified the companies they sold their data to, the FTC claimed that it included personal information like “sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education, homeownership and household value” (source).
How Do We Take Back Our Privacy?
If you own a Smart TV, don’t stress too much! There are ways to opt out of these features (although who knows if this is guaranteed, but it’s certainly worth a shot). Just do a quick Google search and you can find out how to opt out of Vizio and Samsung Smart TVs, if not more.
It’s well-known now that laptop cameras and microphones are easy targets for hackers, particularly if those hackers are U.S. government agencies, as they can be activated remotely (and you may not even know it because that little green light next to your camera won’t necessarily turn on).
The entire CE office tapes over their laptop cameras in order to prevent anyone from potentially spying on us. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tapes over his laptop camera and microphone as an easy defense against people spying on him. I encourage you to do the same!
The reality is that we live in a world where everything is recorded and privacy isn’t always a choice anymore. There are little things here and there that we can do to avoid being taped or listened to, but that seems to be getting more and more difficult. We live in a technologically driven world, so it’s crucial that we voice our opinions and fight for our privacy. Even if you feel like you don’t have anything to hide, you should still have the right to do so!