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Vizio tracks what 10 million smart TV owners’ watch, sells data to advertisers

Nov 11, 20156 mins
Data and Information SecuritySecurity

If you own a Vizio smart TV then you need to opt-out of Smart Interactivity or else Vizio will track what you watch and sell that data so you can be targeted by ads across all your devices.

If you are looking for a good deal, then Black Friday is generally a smart time to buy a TV. For example, Vizio is one of the most popular brands and there are dozens of Vizio TVs showing up in leaked Black Friday ads; but good luck finding one that isn’t “smart.”

In the case of Vizio, smart equals spying. So before you jump on a steal of a deal – or if you already own a Vizio smart TV – then you need to know that Vizio is tracking your viewing habits and sharing it with advertisers so you can be tracked across your phone and other devices.

Samsung and LG have previously been involved in smart TV spying scandals, but the companies now track users’ viewing habits if customers turn on the feature. “Vizio’s actions,” according to a ProPublica investigation, “appear to go beyond what others are doing in the emerging interactive television industry…. Vizio appears “to provide the information in a form that allows advertisers to reach users on other devices.”

Although Vizio claims “your privacy is a priority,” ProPublica noted that Vizio’s “Smart Interactivity” tracking is turned on by default on more than 10 million of its Internet-connected smart TVs. If you don’t want to be tracked for the “delivery of targeted and re-targeted advertisements,” then you must opt-out. Even after you opt-out, Vizio said, “For a period of time you may continue to see tailored ads on other devices that were targeted on the basis of viewing data that was shared before you turned off collection.”

As of Halloween, Vizio updated its privacy policy which also includes a “smart interactivity supplement to the privacy policy.” It states, “As of October 31, 2015, Vizio will share viewing data, together with the IP address associated with the corresponding Vizio television, with limited third parties with whom we have specifically partnered.” The third parties will combine your info “with other information about devices associated with that IP address, in order to customize the advertisements displayed on those other devices.”…“These advertisements may be delivered to smartphones, tablets, PCs or other internet-connected devices that share an IP address or other identifier with your Smart TV.”

Ok, so what does Vizio consider to be viewing data? Thanks to Smart Interactivity, which is enabled by default, “Vizio will collect data related to publicly available content displayed on your television, such as the identity of your broadcast, cable, or satellite television provider, and the television programs and commercials viewed (including time, date, channel, and whether you view them live or at a later time).”

ProPublica explained:

Vizio’s technology works by analyzing snippets of the shows you’re watching, whether on traditional television or streaming Internet services such as Netflix. Vizio determines the date, time, channel of programs — as well as whether you watched them live or recorded. The viewing patterns are then connected your IP address – the Internet address that can be used to identify every device in a home, from your TV to a phone.

IP addresses can increasingly be linked to individuals. Data broker Experian, for instance, offers a “data enrichment” service that provides “hundreds of attributes” (pdf) such as age, profession and “wealth indicators” tied to a particular IP address.

Despite Vizio’s claim that the Viewing Data collected “is anonymous and does not contain Personal Information,” and the company “does not combine or associate the Viewing Data with Personal Information,” when the company filed for an IPO in October, “Vizio touted its ability to provide ‘highly specific viewing behavior data on a massive scale with great accuracy’.”

According to ProPublica, Vizio said laws protecting consumers’ privacy, such as cable subscriber privacy protections and the Video Privacy Protection Act – don’t apply to its business. In fact, unnamed sources said it supposedly combines its viewing data with consumer info obtained via data broker Neustar. Tapad, which identifies users across their many devices, said it has non-disclosure contracts that prevent the company from sharing the names of businesses with whom Tapad works.

I don’t know about you, but there’s no TV fairy who comes to my house to hand out new TVs; therefore you’ve paid for your smart TV and the manufacturer profited from that sale; what right do they have to listen in and record your private conversations, or to collect private files from your connected devices, or – by default in Vizio’s case – to track your viewing habits in the privacy of your home and then hand that over to advertisers to target you with ads across all your devices?

It might sound outrageous, but before you buy a TV you might first find out how the company would react if you did not accept its terms and conditions. Pocket-lint reported, “Sony seems to be the best for this as it will still allow you full access to your TV and all its smart functions even if you turn down the terms and conditions. LG is next in line as it stops you from accessing its apps only if you don’t agree with the T&Cs. Samsung and Toshiba are the next worst culprits as they will shut off your smart TV access all together if you don’t agree to let them virtually probe you. Panasonic stops use of any apps and even the web browser if you don’t agree with its data sharing requirements.”

You could try to steer clear of “smart” TVs, but if you use a Roku for streaming then Roku collects a lot of personal information, as does Google for Chromecast or other Google Cast-enabled devices. Although Apple might be better thanks to its new privacy policy, TV does not have a section under “our approach to privacy.”

A security researcher previously warned that using a Smart TV for spying would be an immensely invasive attack on your and your family’s privacy. So if you have a Vizio smart TV – or plan to purchase one during holiday sales – then you should follow the prompts to opt-out immediately.

Through the TV interface, the steps to opt-out are:

  • 1. Press the MENU button on your TV’s remote.
  • 2. Select Settings.
  • 3. Highlight Smart Interactivity.
  • 4. Press RIGHT arrow to change setting to Off.

Through the Vizio Plus TV interface, the steps to opt-out are:

  • 1. Press the MENU button on your TV’s remote or open HDTV Settings app.
  • 2. Select System.
  • 3. Select Reset & Admin.
  • 4. Highlight Smart Interactivity.
  • 5. Press RIGHT arrow to change setting to Off.

Vizio also said if you can’t figure it out, then you could call 855-472-8817 or email

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.