Vizio smart TVs watch you while you're watching them. What's the deal?

Technically Incorrect: It emerged this week that Vizio's new "Smart Interactivity" feature tracks your viewing habits and passes them on to advertisers. What's more, the feature is on by default.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Smart Interactivity is automatically switched on to your viewing behavior.


One day, you'll be watching "The Bachelor" and a voice will come through the screen reminding you to buy tissues and Pepto-Bismol.

However, we're still not quite at the point where we want our whole lives to be personalized, aka spied upon.

So when a TV manufacturer decides to track our viewing habits and then pass that information on to advertisers, you might expect a frisson of fulmination.

Vizio is the latest to undergo scrutiny about such intrusive technology.

Vizio's smart TVs are very, very smart. The sort of smart that makes some people wince. As Pro Publica reported earlier this week, it has recently acquired a "Smart Interactivity" feature that watches what you're watching and offers that information to advertisers.

On its website, Irvine, California-based Vizio says it can "intelligently recognize linear television and other content shown on the screen and in the future may display accompanying interactive features such as bonus features related to the content you are viewing, the ability to vote in polls, or advertisements that match your interests."

It's a relief that your viewing can be intelligently, and not stupidly, recognized.

This all might remind you of a brouhaha in February involving Samsung. In that one, Samsung admitted its smart TVs might record your deep living room conversations. However, you had to switch on the voice recognition system to let your TV do that. With Vizio, its tracking is automatic, as the feature is on by default. (Astonishingly, there are twice as many steps to turn the feature off as there are to turn it on again.)

The Vizio system tracks not only traditional TV viewing but also the watching of programs streamed over the Internet. It connects your viewing habits with your IP address, a numerical identifier that's assigned to each device on a computer network and that lets gadgets communicate by swapping data.

The company explains in its privacy policy that "beginning October 31, 2015, Vizio will use Viewing Data together with your IP address and other Non-Personal Information in order to inform third party selection and delivery of targeted and re-targeted advertisements." The policy also says that any company that receives Vizio data "may combine this information with other information about devices associated with that IP address."

"Non-Personal Information" has a neutral, legalistic tone, but one concern is that advertisers will be able to associate Vizio's data with, for example, your phone number or email address. Last year, "60 Minutes" discussed how an IP address can be combined with other online identifiers to figure out who someone is. And data on your viewing habits could be matched with other data, such as activity passed on by apps you use or websites you visit, to create a detailed picture of who you are. (Disclosure: CBS, home of "60 Minutes," is CNET's parent company.)

So why did Vizio make the Smart Interactivity feature opt-out? And how much, if anything, might it charge advertisers for viewing information?

Pro Publica noted that "In an October filing for an initial public offering, Vizio touted its ability to provide 'highly specific viewing behavior data on a massive scale with great accuracy.'"

Vizio didn't respond to my request for comment.

The company's TVs generally receive good reviews from my colleague David Katzmeier . They seem to offer very good value. But is Vizio trying to squeeze too much value out of customers' viewing habits?

If the only benefit to viewers is "bonus features related to the content you are viewing, the ability to vote in polls, or advertisements that match your interests," who is really benefiting here?