Privacy Please is an ongoing series exploring the ways privacy is violated in the modern world, and what can be done about it.
When it comes to your television set, brains are overrated.
Smart TVs have long dominated the home entertainment marketplace, with internet access and the built-in ability to play content from streaming services like Netflix considered a must for any modern device. But as is often the case when it comes to the relentless drive to connect the world, when you load your gadgets up with both cameras and behind-the-scenes monitoring tech, and then connect them to the internet, you get a lot more than you pay for.
You’re probably aware that smart TVs have a bit of a reputation when it comes to invading their owners’ privacy as a matter of course. In 2014, a Salon editorial highlighted the fact that even then some smart TV manuals contained language warning customers about discussing “sensitive information” in front of their televisions. The embedded microphones on Samsung smart TVs, as the Daily Beast later reported in 2015, were likely sending voice commands to third parties to convert speech to text.
What we didn’t know at the time, and what we do know now, is that text-to-voice systems — like those used by Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple — for years relied on real humans listening to customers’ voice commands (and many likely still do). And, at least in the case of Amazon’s Alexa, devices in the past often started recording without a wake word prompt.
And that’s just the tip of the privacy-sinking iceberg.
“Beyond the risk that your TV manufacturer and app developers may be listening and watching you, that television can also be a gateway for hackers to come into your home,” the FBI warned in 2019. “In a worst-case scenario, they can turn on your bedroom TV’s camera and microphone and silently cyberstalk you.”
But even slapping tape over your smart TV’s camera and disabling the mic isn’t enough to protect your in-home privacy.
Automatic Content Recognition
Many modern TVs come pre-loaded with something called automatic content recognition (ACR) software. You’d be forgiven for never having come across this particular term before, and that’s most definitely part of the problem.
“In order to provide you with customized Smart TV experiences, some of our feature and services will rely on your TV viewing history and Smart TV usage information,” explains the policy, dated Jan. 1, 2021. “Your TV viewing history includes information about the networks, channels, websites visited and programs viewed on your Smart TV and the amount of time spent viewing them. We may use automatic content recognition (ACR) and other technologies to capture this information.”
In other words, imagine some ad executive standing over you ever time you turn on your TV, recording in minute detail everything you watch and for how long, and then sending (or possibly selling) that data to any number of third parties that you’ve never heard of but who now posses your IP address (which can be tied back to your name) linked to your viewing habits.
“When ACR collection is turned on, we may share Viewing Data with authorized data partners including analytics companies, media companies and advertisers,” it explains. “Viewing Data is sometimes enhanced with household demographic data and data about digital actions (e.g. digital purchases and other consumer behavior taken by devices associated with the IP Address we collect).”
Sounds creepy, right? And when you think about what companies might be able to infer from your viewing habits — your religious and political beliefs, your income level, your marital status, your proclivity for specific types of pornography — it gets even creepier.
Thankfully, there’s a solution that doesn’t involve a brick.
Turning off ACR
When it comes to turning off ACR on your smart TV, there’s the easy way, and then there’s the hard way.
The easy way — disconnecting your television, permanently, from the internet — also renders your smart TV partially dumb. Which, hey, that might not be so bad. If you’re the type of person who has a vast Blu-ray collection, or someone who hooks your laptop up to your TV with an HDMI cable every time you want to stream something, then disconnecting your TV from the internet makes sense.
These days, though, many people rely on Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon Prime for their viewing pleasures. In other words, connecting your TV to the internet is nonnegotiable. Thankfully, many smart TVs now offer the option to disable ACR.
Frustratingly, the option to do so is often buried deep within a TV’s settings and explained with confusing terms — making it a challenge to locate, and, once found, to understand. Oh yeah, and every brand hides this option in a different place.
Vizio, for example, offers the following instructions for disabling ACR:
Press the MENU button on your TV’s remote or open HDTV Settings app
Select Reset & Admin
Highlight Viewing Data
Press RIGHT arrow to change setting to Off
You’ll want to disable viewing information services, interest-based advertising, and, for good measure, voice recognition services (these may be under another settings page, titled “Privacy Choices”).
Own something other than a Vizio, Samsung, or Roku-enabled smart TV? No problem. Consumer Reports has a wonderful step-by-step guide for turning of ACR on a bevy of different smart TV manufacturers, including LG, Sony, Hisense, Philips, Sharp, Element, Insignia, and Toshiba.
Modern technology increasingly invades consumers’ lives in ever-more disturbing fashions, but that doesn’t mean you have to make it easy for the companies trying to profit off what few private moments you have left.
So spend a few minutes diving into your TVs’ convoluted privacy settings, and rest assured that you’re at least doing the bare minimum when it comes taking back control of your data.