Cord-cutting used to be a revolution. A way into ad-free TV world where we choose when and what to watch, where we have unlimited options when it comes to TV content. It also presumed that video ads were a thing of the past since a subscription means no ads.
Well, TV over the internet did offer all those benefits, but at the same time it introduced new ways for big internet companies to track us and our viewing habits. Because that’s the Internet. Every single device connected to it will feed data to advertisers if enabled and in most cases, ad tracking is enabled by default.
Streaming TV devices aren’t different.
Your set-top boxes are spying on you
A couple of recent studies found there are lots of streaming TV channels that allow big internet companies to track user viewing behavior. The similar state of affairs is happening in the world of smart TVs and other streaming devices such as Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV.
The first study includes researchers at Princeton and the University of Chicago. They took Roku and Amazon Fire TV set-top devices and scanned TV channels available on those in search for ad trackers. And the results are staggering. Out of more than 2,000 channels available on Roku and Amazon TV, 69 percent of Roku ones and 89 percent of channels available on Fire TV contained ad trackers.
The most prevalent advertising company when it comes to Roku streaming devices was Google with the company’s two trackers, doubleclick.net and analytics trackers, found in 975 and 360 of the top 1,000 channels, respectively.
Fire TV devices included Amazon trackers in 687 out of top 1,000 channels, with Google trackers being discovered in 307 channels and Facebook ad trackers hiding away in 196 channels. These are worrying numbers but what’s more worrying is the way these trackers send data back to servers.
Their data isn’t encrypted and is in fact sent as plaintext, which means that anyone who intercepts the data can access it as is, without even trying to decrypt it. And the data being sent to Google, Amazon, and Facebook servers includes things like content being watched, devices content is watched on (TV models, or other devices as well as which set-top boxes are being used) in the form of permanent device identifiers, as well as wireless SSID info.
SSID information can be used to tie devices to certain wireless networks and group devices connected to the same network. In other words, it can map all streaming devices in your household.
Your smart TVs do the same thing
The results of the second study show that set-top boxes aren’t the only ones snooping on your viewing habits.
Many smart TV devices send data to third parties, with Google, Facebook, and Amazon being the most prominent ones, again, but this time there’s also Netflix. Data has been sent to its servers even when no Netflix account was found on the device. And again, the data being sent was completely unencrypted and in plaintext for all to see. The second study was conducted by researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London.
This isn’t anything new. The US TV manufacturer Vizio has been caught snooping on users without their permission (the tracking service was turned on by default on new TVs) back in 2015 and the result was laughably low, $2.2 million settlement along with a court order that Vizio is required to inform users about tracking and ask for their permission before its TVs start to snoop on viewers.
Today, Vizio has its own data gathering subdivision called Inscape. And Vizio isn’t the only one doing it. The smart TV ad tracking industry is pretty lucrative. Samba TV, an ad tracking company, has signed deals with more than a dozen TV manufacturers (Philips, Sony, TCL, and Sharp included) that allows the company to install its tracking software disguised as a “Samba Interactive TV: an Interactive TV experience” that “recommends shows and other content based on recognizing onscreen content.”
Their app is capable of recognizing which channel is on, what content is being watched, are there any ads, etc. The app works even when you don’t watch TV and is capable of recognizing which video game you play as well as other devices connected to the same wireless network as your TV. Yes, things are looking dire.
Sadly, there isn’t much you can do about it
Our actions as consumers are limited.
In case of Roku and Amazon Fire TV, we can’t do much; the ad trackers are embedded in certain channels and by watching them you basically permit advertisers to track you and your viewing habits.
You can limit ad tracking (on Roku devices) and disable personalized ads on Fire TV but that still didn’t remove all trackers, according to both studies.
"Our actions as consumers are limited."
What you can do in case you own a smart TV is not permitting any service that appears once you turn on your TV for the first time. Just skip all those “interactive TV platforms,” “recommendation platforms,” or other services that promise better TV watching experience. Further, smart TV owners can dive deep into settings and try finding options such as “smart recommendation,” “content recognition,” “personalized ads,” “usage of interactive TV platforms,” or “third party ads, third party content recognition, and recommendation” and turn those off.