Even if viewers decide to investigate what is being shared and with whom, finding the terms of service is sometimes cumbersome. And most consumers don’t even think of data gathering as something a TV does.
The growing concern over online data and user privacy has been focused on tech giants like Facebook and devices like smartphones. But people’s data is also increasingly being vacuumed right out of their living rooms via their televisions, sometimes without their knowledge.
In recent years, data companies have harnessed new technology to immediately identify what people are watching on internet-connected TVs, then using that information to send targeted advertisements to other devices in their homes. Marketers, forever hungry to get their products in front of the people most likely to buy them, have eagerly embraced such practices. But the companies watching what people watch have also faced scrutiny from regulators and privacy advocates over how transparent they are being with users.
Samba TV is one of the bigger companies that track viewer information to make personalized show recommendations. The company said it collected viewing data from 13.5 million smart TVs in the United States, and it has raised $40 million in venture funding from investors including Time Warner Cable, cable operator Liberty Global and billionaire Mark Cuban.
Samba TV has struck deals with roughly a dozen TV brands — including Sony, Sharp, TCL and Philips — to place its software on certain sets. When people set up their TVs, a screen urges them to enable a service called Samba Interactive TV, saying it recommends shows and provides special offers “by cleverly recognizing onscreen content.” But the screen, which contains the enable button, does not detail how much information Samba TV collects to make those recommendations.
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A Samba TV executive said at the end of 2016 that more than 90 percent of people opted in.
Once enabled, Samba TV can track nearly everything that appears on the TV, from network shows to programs on Netflix and even video games played on the set. Samba TV has even offered advertisers the ability to base their targeting on whether people watch conservative or liberal media outlets.
The big draw for advertisers — which have included Citi and JetBlue in the past, and now Expedia — is that Samba TV can also identify other devices in the home that share the TV’s internet connection.
Samba TV, which says it has adhered to privacy guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), does not directly sell its data. Instead, advertisers can pay the company to direct ads to other gadgets in a home after their TV commercials play, or one from a rival airs. Advertisers can also add to their websites a tag from Samba TV that lets them determine if people visit after watching one of their commercials.
If it sounds a lot like the internet — a company with little name recognition tracking your behavior, then slicing and dicing it to sell ads — that is the point. But consumers do not typically expect the so-called idiot box to be a savant.
“It’s still not intuitive that the box-maker or the software embedded by the box-maker is going to be doing this,” said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy at the advocacy group Consumers Union and a former policy director at the FTC.
About 45 percent of TV households in the United States had at least one smart TV at the end of 2017, IHS Markit data showed.
Samba TV’s language is clear, said Bill Daddi, a spokesman. “Each version has clearly identified that we use technology to recognize what’s onscreen, to create benefit for the consumer as well as Samba, its partners and advertisers,” he added.
Still, David Kitchen, a software engineer in London, said he was startled to learn how Samba TV worked after encountering its opt-in screen during a software update on his Sony set.
The opt-in read, in part: “Interact with your favorite shows. Get recommendations based on the content you love. Connect your devices for exclusive content and special offers.”
The language prompted Kitchen to research Samba TV’s data collection and raise concerns about its practices.
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said few people review the fine print in their zeal to set up new televisions. He said the notice should also describe Samba TV’s “device map,” which matches TV content to mobile gadgets, according to a document on its website, and can help the company track users “in their office, in line at the food truck and on the road as they travel.”
Smart TV companies are not subject to the stricter rules and regulations regarding viewing data that have traditionally applied to cable companies, helping fuel “this rise of weird ways to figure out what someone’s watching,” said Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University and a former technology adviser at the Federal Communications Commission.
The smart TV companies are overseen by the FTC, Mayer said, meaning that “as long as you’re truthful to consumers, even if you make it really hard to exercise choices or don’t offer choices at all, you probably don’t have much of a legal issue.”