It has been almost 70 years since George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, but now, some of his forward-looking warnings are starting to be realized in 2018. Take this stunning letter from Senators Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who told the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Joseph Simmons last Thursday that internet-connected smart TVs are spying and creating profiles on the American people.
“Televisions have entered a new era, but that does not mean that users’ sensitive information no longer deserves protection,” the senators wrote. “The content consumers watch is private, and it should not be assumed that customers want companies to track and use information on their viewing habits.”
The letter requested that the FTC maintain its program on monitoring Smart TVs and asked for an entirely new investigation into the privacy policies and practices of manufacturers.
The senators explained how smart TVs are data mining users’ viewing history by collecting the data to tailor and deliver precision-guided advertisements towards unknowing consumers. By harvesting vast amounts of data, including broadcasts, cable shows, video games, Netflix shows, and other applications, these smart devices develop a comprehensive profile of the users’ preferences and even specific characteristics. It even can “identify users’ political affiliations based on whether they watch conservative or liberal media outlets,” the letter explained.
Consumers are generally unaware of tracking features unless they meticulously examine the device’s owner manual and legal notices buried within.
The senators cite a New York Times report on Samba TV, a company that utilizes a content recommendation engine and viewer tracking application designed for high-tech TVs. “Recent reports suggest that Samba TV, one of the largest companies tracking smart TV users’ viewing behavior, offers consumers the opportunity to enable their tracking service, but does not provide sufficient information about its privacy practices to ensure users can make truly informed decisions,” said the senators.
They also note the FTC has taken disciplinary action before, investigating Vizio for collecting data on 11 million smart TVs without consumers’ consent. Last year, the company settled with both the FTC and the New Jersey Attorney General, agreeing to pay $2.2 million in fines.
Blumenthal and Markey also sent letters to Facebook and Google on their data policies. The pair stressed that greater FTC oversight of Facebook is needed following the events of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Last month, Facebook filed an alarming patent that would allow it to send a signal through the broadcast content that would connect with users’ smartphones to harvest mobile phone data.
The FTC, Markey, and Blumenthal did not respond to requests for comments via CNET.
The senators concluded their letter by stating, “We respectfully request that the FTC continue its efforts on smart TVs and launch an investigation into the privacy policies and practices of smart TV manufacturers.”
It seems like Nineteen Eighty-Four is here as televisions now watch you.
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