Smart TV channels watch you back, and so do ad trackers

smart TV track
Image credit: scyther5

It’s no secret that smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming video devices collect data to track your viewing habits just like any other connected device. Indeed, it’s often cited as a key reason why smart TVs don’t cost that much – the collected data is used to place targeted adverts in front of you.

However, three recent research papers have provided fresh data on just how much tracking is going on, how many trackers these devices and apps connect to, and which ones. The short version: there’s a whole lotta tracking going on. And it’s only going to get worse as smart TVs get even smarter.

One study from researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago [PDF] looked at over 2,000 OTT channels (i.e. apps) on the Roku and Amazon Fire TV platforms using a crawler bot that automatically downloaded the apps and interacted with them to determine the domains behind the ads. Result: 89% of Amazon Fire TV channels and 69% of Roku channels connected with well-known trackers like Google Analytics and Doubleclick.

Moreover, we’re not talking one tracker per channel, but potentially dozens – some channels connect with over 60 trackers. The data shared with the trackers varied, but some shared video titles, Wi-Fi SSIDs, MAC addresses and device serial numbers. In a few cases, email addresses were also shared. And in some cases the shared data was unencrypted.

Another paper published by a team from Northeastern University in the US and Imperial College London [PDF] takes a broader scope by looking at over 80 IoT devices – including smart TV devices, smart speakers, video doorbells and even a rice cooker. The devices were found to connect to numerous third parties, including cloud providers and trackers. For the five smart TV devices covered in the study, here is one interesting takeaway:

Nearly all TV devices in our testbeds contacts Netflix even though we never configured any TV with a Netflix account. This, at the very least, exposes information to Netflix about the model of TV at a given location.

The third study – from researchers at Princeton University, KU Leuven, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago [PDF] – gathered data from an open-source tool called IoT Inspector that observes the traffic from smart-home devices on home networks. Over 4,300 people have voluntarily installed the tool to collect data for the research. The team analyzed labeled network traffic from 44,956 smart home devices across 13 categories and 53 vendors.

The results were similar to the other two papers in terms of the amount of tracking. For smart TVs, they discovered that half of them connected to around 350 distinct third-party advertiser and tracking domains. Some of them also connect to automatic content recognition (ACR) services that can detect what program you’re watching in real time in order to make recommendations – and, of course, serve relevant ads to your screen.

Watching the watchers

Again, the news here isn’t so much that smart TVs (and for that matter, most IoT devices) are collecting data and sending it to ad trackers and other third parties. But the three papers reveal the massive extent to which this is going on.

The bad news is that, according to a Twitter thread from Princeton professor Arvind Narayanan (one of the co-authors of the Princeton/UoC study), smart TV tracking is likely to become more prevalent over time as TV platforms increasingly rely on targeted ads as their chief revenue stream.

The good news – such as it is – is that there are ways to disable at least some of the tracking features of smart TV platforms. Consumer Reports – which has been investigating smart-TV tracking and data collection for several years – has just posted advice on how to manage your privacy preferences on smart TVs from Roku, Samsung, Sony and Vizio.

But it’s not easy, and it may not last long as new features are added to the platform. (Think about how many times you adjusted your privacy settings on Facebook, only to find they had been mysteriously reset after a platform or policy upgrade.) Narayanan expects that smart TV platforms will increasingly utilize data mining and algorithmic personalization/persuasion to keep viewers engaged as long as possible (similar to what YouTube does now to sometimes horrifying effect), while more sophisticated technologies like ultrasonic beacons could also enter the mainstream.

In essence, smart TV platforms are just another form of what security expert Bruce Schneier calls surveillance capitalism – the current business model of the internet in which surveillance is the default mode of every connected device you may own. Smart TVs will be no exception – why would they be?

Even if (like me) you don’t own a smart TV device, you eventually will. Ovum is forecasting that by 2024, 81% of TV sets sold globally will be smart TVs. And the TVs in five years will be even more advanced than the ones sold today.

To give you an idea, last week Huawei announced its new 4K TV set – branded Huawei Vision – which runs on the company’s new Harmony OS and sports numerous AI features to the point that Huawei likes to say it’s essentially a smart speaker with a 65-inch 4K screen.

Oh, and Huawei Vision’s AI supports tracking and facial recognition. Imagine what smart TV platforms and the trackers they connect to could do with that capability in 2024. Or even right now.

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