While You Were Watching Your Vizio TV, Vizio Was Watching You

Vizio TV
Not that you were really watching “Pan.”

Over the past several years, television manufacturer Vizio has been rehabilitating its reputation as a bargain basement TV maker by shipping surprisingly high quality products at low prices. I myself have owned two of their sets, and I’ve been very complimentary of the surprisingly insightful design that goes into them.

All that good will may have been for naught, though, as it’s been revealed that these very same televisions have been engaging in rather nefarious, privacy-violating behavior. The FTC announced on Monday that it has settled a complaint against the company for tracking the exact content that consumers have been watching on its TVs without their consent.

Starting in 2014, Vizio made TVs that automatically tracked what consumers were watching and transmitted that data back to its servers. Vizio even retrofitted older models by installing its tracking software remotely. All of this, the FTC and AG allege, was done without clearly telling consumers or getting their consent.

What did Vizio know about what was going on in the privacy of consumers’ homes? On a second-by-second basis, Vizio collected a selection of pixels on the screen that it matched to a database of TV, movie, and commercial content. What’s more, Vizio identified viewing data from cable or broadband service providers, set-top boxes, streaming devices, DVD players, and over-the-air broadcasts. Add it all up and Vizio captured as many as 100 billion data points each day from millions of TVs.

That’s a shocking and egregious example of the old adage that if a technology can be used for some nefarious purpose, it will be. Thankfully the FTC (and the New Jersey Attorney General) prevailed in this complaint, though it’s maybe worse news that the total settlement sum is just US$2.2 million. That hardly seems like a particularly disincentivizing figure for a company that was sold last year to Chinese tech company LeCo for US$2 billion. The amount is said to cover eleven million televisions that were either sold with or retrofitted with this unwanted feature starting in 2014. That works out to just 20¢ per unit. The precedent that this sets seems counterproductive; for a company whose products cost hundreds of dollars each, it seems like pretty straightforward economics to say that acquiring potentially valuable private data is worth a gamble of 20¢ per unit.

Read more about the outcome at ftc.gov.