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October 6, 2019

You watch TV, it watches you back

Top Story

October 6, 2019

WASHINGTON: Once every few minutes, your TV beams out a report about what’s on your screen to the company that made it. Chances are, your TV is watching you, too, through a few nosy pixels on the screen, international media reported.

Ever wondered why TV sets are getting so cheap? Manufacturing efficiency plays a role. But to paraphrase political commentator James Carville, it’s the data.

TVs have joined the ranks of websites, apps and credit cards in the lucrative business of harvesting and sharing your information. Americans spend an average of 3½ hours in front of a TV each day, according to eMarketer, the market research company. Your TV records may not contain sensitive search queries or financial data, but that history is a window to your interests, personality, joys and embarrassments.

And they’re grabbing it because, legally speaking, tens of millions of us gave our permission.

An experimenter had been on the hunt for what happens to his data behind the cloak of computer code and privacy policies. So he ran an experiment on his own Internet-connected smart TV models from four of the best-selling brands.

He set up each smart TV as most people do: by tapping “OK” with the remote to each on-screen prompt. Then using a software, he watched how each model transmitted data. Lots went flying from streaming apps and their advertising partners. But even when he switched to a live broadcast signal, he could see each TV sending out reports as often as once per second.

When tracking is active, some TVs record and send out everything that crosses the pixels on your screen. It doesn’t matter whether the source is cable, an App, your DVD player or streaming box.

Many TV makers say tracking what we watch helps them provide helpful personalised recommendations. TV tracking is mostly about filling in a missing chunk of data about our lives for advertisers and media companies.

The reporter tracked down some of the firms that buy it from TV makers. They told him it makes TVs more like Facebook, where content can be measured and ads can be better targeted and tracked for performance.

And just as on Facebook, things can get creepy. Data firms use your TV history to link up what you watch with what you do on your phone, tablet and laptop — even what you buy in stores. It’s as if your TV can unhook itself from the wall and follow you around.

Since 1988, watching TV has been one of the few private activities specifically protected under US law. (Congress passed the Video Privacy Protection Act after reporters published Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video-rental records.) In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission rebuked a TV maker for being deceptive and unfair in tracking customer screens. The FTC told the TV maker — and the entire TV industry — to be upfront and to make it so that customers had to opt in.

Two-and-a-half years after the FTC took action, new TVs include more small print requiring you to click “agree” when you set them up. But the majority of American smart TVs still have tracking turned on, according to the TV companies.

TVs were supposed to be a privacy-regulation success story. Now they’re looking more like a cautionary tale.

A fingerprint for your big screen

How does a TV watch you back? Think of it less as a dumb box and more like a 65-inch computer.

Trying to measure TV habits has long challenged the industry. Market research firm Nielsen famously signs up people to panels, but they’re just a sample. Streaming services such as Netflix keep meticulous records about what we watch but are limited to their own product.

A decade ago, the arrival of smart TVs with Internet connections and apps gave an engineer named Zeev Neumeier a new idea: have the TV itself report on everything that crosses its screen. “We built a better mousetrap,” says Neumeier, now the senior vice president of technology at Inscape, the data division of a TV maker. It’s called “automatic content recognition,” or ACR.

Neumeier, whose company is under orders from the FTC to be transparent, was the only industry leader willing to sit down in front of a TV and explain how his company tracks me.

Once per second, Neumeier told the correspondent, TVs capture a fingerprint of what’s on the screen. It looks like two dozen square bundles of pixels scattered around the screen, which the TV converts into a string of numbers. That string is what the TV beams back to the maker company, along with identifiers for your TV.

The maker compares the fingerprint with a database of known content — like Shazam for video. The result is a second-by-second log of your TV time, which the firm sells to about 30 different companies.

Another famous brand TV maker said its ACR technology also uses fingerprints but declined to be more specific. Many of the TV companies say they aren’t violating our privacy, because ACR data technically isn’t “personally identifiable information.” TVs, they say, are shared by an entire household.

But the firms do collect, use and share one other important piece of identifying information: your TV’s Internet Protocol address. An IP address is your home’s identity on the Internet, shared across all the gadgets you own (which are also gathering data about you). It’s how they link up what you see on TV with the rest of your life.

The data trail

ACR data reveals a lot more than what’s trending or popular. It’s a tool for marketers to build a trail from what you binge to what you buy.

With so much more detail about who’s watching what, advertisers can use ACR to better target messages. The TVs of two famous brands comb the data to identify household interests and then insert ads based on them right on your TV screen. (That’s why those two firms say they don’t “sell” our personal information — they just make use of it, instead.) Who knows what judgments they’ll make if they see you watch a lot of reality TV, CNBC or both.

Other ACR firms use the data to re-target ads you see on TV across your computer and phone. (Smart advertisers also use the data to avoid annoying you by repeating the same ad.)

ACR data also lets marketers match what people watch with other data sources — apps, loyalty cards, you name it — to help measure the effectiveness of ads. They want to know exactly how many car ads people saw before they bought one. It’s not always “you” they’re after. Sometimes it’s aggregated, statistical models of people who act or watch TV like you. And placing personalised ads on the TV is still in its early days, ad executives warn.

But just imagine the possibilities in elections. Although it’s not common yet, using ACR and voter databases, campaigns could know which shows persuadable voters watch most — even when the programmes have nothing to do with politics.

How does any of this benefit us? “If you want great TV, then the TV industry needs to monetise itself,” says Vizio’s Neumeier. “And ACR data allows them to do that in a way that is privacy-compliant and respectful of the user.”

With better data, he says, we’ll get more-relevant ads and networks will get paid more for their ads — which could lead to better shows and maybe even fewer commercial breaks.

Making network ads work more like online ads also could make TV terrible. And it puts one more trove of data about our lives in the hands of companies that could misuse it — or manipulate us.