TV brand Vizio pays $2.2m after being caught tracking users

Posted Feb 7, 2017 by James Walker
Vizio has been ordered to pay $2.2 million after being found guilty of unlawfully monitoring customers' browsing habits. The smart TV manufacturer secretly tracked what users watched, storing up to 100 billion data points every day.
Vizio home cinema system
Vizio home cinema system
Vizio allegedly installed monitoring software on 11 million smart TVs. It secretly logged users' viewing histories without providing any warning of its activities. After complaints were made by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General in February 2014, a lawsuit over the invasive activity began that was settled this week.
Vizio has agreed to pay $2.2 million to the FTC and New Jersey. It will also be forced to delete any unlawfully obtained data harvested from devices before March 1, 2016. Going forward, it will have to "prominently" disclose what data it's collecting and why. Consumers will need to explicitly give consent before any viewing details are collected.
The original complaint against Vizio makes strong allegations about its use of tracking software. According to the FTC's report, the company uploaded pixels from a region of the screen "on a second-by-second basis." The pixels were used to identify the show being watched by comparing them with a database of known content.
Vizio then linked the show being watched to aspects of the user's personal data. Sensitive information, including sex, age, income, marital status and education, were harvested and added to the dataset. Vizio sold the entire collection to advertisers and other third-parties, enabling them to work out the viewing habits of individual customers. The company even handed over IP addresses, enabling the user to be connected to their physical location.
"Consumers didn't know that while they were watching their TVs, Vizio was watching them," said the FTC. "The lawsuit challenges the company's tracking practices and offers insights into how established consumer protection principles apply to smart technology."
Vizio started shipping the software with new TVs during 2014. However, it also added it to existing models through over-the-air software updates. Users were not informed of the content of the firmware packages.
The tracking "feature" was hidden in Vizio's menu system behind the "Smart Interactivity" settings page. It claimed to "enable program offers and suggestions." No mention was made of personal data being sold on to third-parties.
In statements sent to news sites this week, Vizio accepted that its privacy practices weren't aligned with industry standards. It noted that its tracking software never paired personally identifiable information, such as names and contact details, with viewing data though. This prevents third-party firms from directly establishing identities. However, the company recognised that it needs to adopt more transparent privacy standards, pledging to "lead the way" amongst TV manufacturers.
"Today, the FTC has made clear that all smart TV makers should get people's consent before collecting and sharing television viewing information and Vizio now is leading the way," the company commented to Engadget.
Vizio isn't the first smart TV brand to engage in invasive user tracking. Companies including LG have also used underhand tactics in the past. In 2013, the company's range of smart TVs were caught sending a list of watched shows back to the manufacturer, without the user's consent. The software could also compile a list of filenames present on connected USB drives, as well as content shared across a local home network.