Can your gadgets spy on you? If so, are they?
A smart TV is a digital television that is, essentially, an Internet-connected, storage-aware computer specialized for entertainment. Smart TVs are available as stand-alone products but regular televisions can also be made “smart” through set-top boxes that enable advanced functions.
Smart TV’s have hundreds of apps installed for easy access to your favorite music, movies, tv, and entertainment. You can simply log on to your Netflix, Hulu, or Pandora acconts on your TV and have easy access anywhere. But who exactly controls smart TVs? Who has access to your account information?
According to WikiLeaks revelations in March 2017, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hacked computers, phones, even televisions. The CIA hack was codenamed “Weeping Angel”. Titled “Vault 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed”, the revelation alleges that the CIA developed hacks to break into Apple and Android smartphones, computers and a specific series of Samsung smart TVs made in 2012 and 2013. These TVs are Internet-connected and have a microphone for voice commands that the CIA tapped into to spy on some people.
And, says WikiLeaks, this is how the agency did it:
“After infestation, Weeping Angel places the target TV in a ‘Fake-Off’ mode, so that the owner falsely believes the TV is off when it is on. In ‘Fake-Off’ mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a covert CIA server.”
Samsung, Apple, Google and Microsoft have since issued statements that they have fixed the issues with software updates, or are working on these vulnerabilities and will be releasing the fixes via software updates soon enough.
If you have a Smart TV, or other decices connected to the internet: smartphones, laptops, desktops, and routers- should you be worried about hackers?
There are ways to keep your smart TV from the prying eyes of the company that made it. In fact, there’s one absurdly easy way that will work for any television you can buy. Let’s start there.
The single most foolproof way to keep an internet-connected TV from sending data to far-flung ad tech servers around the globe? Disconnect it from the internet. And honestly, you should be doing that anyway.
Think about what you’re really getting from the “smart” part of your high-tech television. A shoddy interface? Voice commands that work half the time, if you’re lucky? A few bonus ads popping up in unexpected places? No thank you! Go to Settings, find the Wi-Fi On/Off toggle, and shut it down.
That doesn’t mean you have to live a Netflix-free life. But you should very much opt for a streaming box or dongle for your televised internet interests. They’re more user-friendly, often more feature-packed, and while some still track your viewing habits pretty aggressively—such as Roku—they at least give you a little more control, or at the very least act the way you’d expect them to. Apple TV, for instance, hardly tracks you at all, as is in keeping with Apple’s stance on privacy generally. Chromecast and Android TV are both Google products, which, well, let’s just say they’re subject to the same privacy agreement you sign away for all of your Google needs.
The one arguable exception here? TV sets that have absorbed traditional streaming box platforms, like Roku TVs from TCL and Hisense, or Sony’s Android TV models. On these the experience—including the privacy strengths and weaknesses—are practically identical to what you’d get out of a separate set-top box anyway.
If you insist on keeping your smart TV hooked up to the big bad internet regardless, here’s a quick primer on how to limit what it tracks by brand.
The good news about the Vizio settlement, if you happen to have one of the 11 million data-collecting sets they sold over the last few years, is that the company has to delete all of the data it collected prior to March 1, 2016. Vizio also says that the setting has been disabled on all of its TVs with the Vizio Internet Apps platform, but just in case, here’s how to cut it off yourself.
From your TV’s Menu option, head to System. Select Reset & Admin, choose Smart Interactivity, and hit the right arrow to toggle over to Off.
Newer Vizio sets use SmartCast, which is basically a built-in Chromecast, meaning they’re not afflicted with ACR. Google will still collect some data though..
The good news, according to Consumer Reports, is that LG’s current line of webOS sets doesn’t automatically collect your data. The bad news is that LG’s older sets, well, do.
If you have one of those Live Plus models, go to Options, then Live Plus, and switch it off.
Samsung does ask for your consent to track your viewing behavior when you first turn it on, so hopefully you declined at the time if that bugs you. If instead, in your haste to set up your shiny new big screen before the Castle series finale, you opted in, it’s still not too late for you.
Head to the Smart Hub menu, then to Terms & Policy. ChoooseSyncPlus and Marketing, and disable it. While you’re in there, you may also want to deactivate Voice Recognition Services; in 2015 Samsung TVs were found to be listening to literally everything within earshot. The company has since amended its voice recognition to listen only when spoken to specifically, but, you know, still.
The bulk of high-end Sony TVs today use Android TV, which means you’re subject to Google’s data-collection practices. Sony itself can also collect data through audio recognition, but the company offers a clear-eyed privacy terms and conditions screen when you first use it, and it’s easy to opt out then.
That should about do it! It’s important to remember that practically any device that’s connected to the internet will probably track you in some way or another. But having even a little control over who and how matters. How many episodes of The Bachelor you’ve watched this season is nobody’s business, especially not an advertiser’s.
StaySafer using Smart TV’s, with these helpful tips on how to prevent hacking!