I knew my “Smart TV” was a little different when I got my first one and discovered that just like a computer, it might sometimes reboot for no particular reason. I certainly never thought it was listening to me and sharing what I said.

Things certainly have changed now the TV’s are connected to the internet and can both receive and send data.  The Federal Trade Commission is taking a look at privacy issues when it comes to “Smart TV” sets.

“Smart TVs are testing the privacy expectations that consumers developed in the era of traditional television,” said Jessica Rich, FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection as reported in MediaPost.  “It matters whether consumers think of their Smart TV as a PC or a television.”

UPDATED Feb 7, 2017: The FTC has come down hard on Vizio for data collection from smart TV’s. Vizio has agreed to stop unauthorized tracking, to prominently disclose its TV viewing collection practices, and to get consumers’ express consent before collecting and sharing viewing information. In addition, the company must delete most of the data it collected and put a privacy program in place that evaluates Vizio’s practices and its partners. The order also includes a $1.5 million payment to the FTC and an additional civil penalty to New Jersey for a total of $2.2 million.

Right now, though, people don’t think of their TV as a computer gathering and sending our data.  While we’ve got conditioned to online tracking (even though we hate it), we don’t think of TV that way.  I sure don’t want that ad-for-something-I-shopped-on-Amazon-once-a-year-ago to follow me in every commercial break like it does on every website I visit.  Doesn’t it know I already bought it?

In 2016, virtually all television delivery systems – smart TVs, streaming devices, game consoles, apps, and even old-fashioned set top boxes – track consumers’ viewing habits, the FTC says, and sometimes in new and unexpected ways.

When it comes to privacy on viewer data, what can be collected, how it can be collected, how it can be used, and how notifications are handled, the rules haven’t been updated since the 1980’s.  It was the TiVo that spurred development of the rules in 1984, which took into account technology in existence at that time.  There’s been nothing proposed or changed since then.

Samsung recently updated its privacy policy for Smart TV’s.  It give us an insight into just what is being tracked:

  • Information about content that you have watched, purchased, downloaded, or streamed through Samsung applications on your SmartTV or other devices;
  • Information about applications you have accessed through the SmartTV panels;
  • Information about your clicks on the “Like,” “Dislike,” “Watch Now,” and other buttons on your SmartTV;
  • The query terms you enter into SmartTV search features, including when you search for particular video content; and
  • Other SmartTV usage and device information, including, but not limited to, IP address, information stored in cookies and similar technologies, information that identifies your hardware or software configuration, browser information, and the page(s) you request.
  • In addition, if you enable the collection of information about video streams viewed on your SmartTV, we may collect that information and additional information about the network, channels, and programs that you view through the SmartTV

OMG.  It sounds like Facebook!  Seriously, though, we’re in a brave new world where we’ll all have to decide what information we’re willing to give up in order to get better services.  But a universal truth is that it really should be our right to decide and not a manufacturer or website, right?

It’s not just tracking what channels and programs are watched.  Some TVs and devices now have voice recognition.  What’s it listening to and what’s it tracking? Samsung originally had a clause in its privacy policy, reported by Shane Harris at The Daily Beast, which warned users to be careful what they say in front of their TV set.

“Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party,” the policy read in a previous iteration.

While the data being transmitted to a third party was a way to turn speech into information to help personalize content for users, it’s still concerning.  The policy has since been changed.

Shh.  Don’t let the TV hear us talking about that new car or we’ll be bombarded with car ads.

And what about facial recognition and gesture tracking?

The FTC has held hearings, but hasn’t decided yet what direction – if any – it’s going to take on privacy for Smart TVs. In the meantime, if you’re willing to take the time to dig through the menus, you can disable most (if not all) of the tracking and transmissions.  You’ll be giving up that personal recommendation engine that you like so much when you use Netflix though.

Or you can always just disconnect the WiFi and watch TV the way it used to be.