As smart TVs become the only option, your privacy choices fizzle out

You can’t buy a good, dumb TV anymore. That means more privacy and security concerns with what you’re watching.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read
Technological Waste

Old TVs are going extinct. That means fewer options for protecting your privacy.

Bill Hinton / Getty Images

If you're worried about your privacy, there are precautions you can take like staying off social networks, using cash or watching out for certain apps. But when it comes to watching television, more and more you're out of luck.

Smart televisions collect a massive amount of data on viewers, through a technology called Automatic Content Recognition. It recognizes everything you're watching on the TV, and shares that data with advertisers. Other TVs can collect audio through recordings, while apps can be used to track viewings by listening through the phone.

Samsung offered a stark reminder of that risk on Monday after recommending that its owners regularly scan its televisions for viruses "every few weeks" in a tweet. (It was later taken down.)

It's just one of the examples of how technological convenience is being turned into a potential violation of your privacy. Televisions have long led the trend of making more things around the house smarter, with the inclusion of Wi-Fi capabilities and cameras. As a result, good old-fashioned dumb TVs are going extinct, so a return to simpler times isn't that easy.

"You really can't find a TV that doesn't have some level of smart capability," said Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD Group.

Why there aren't dumb TVs

IHS Markit said smart TVs made up 70% of all TV sales in 2018, and that's only expected to grow. Baker said that you'd have to downgrade to a television from 2013 or 2014 if you wanted a dumb TV.

TV makers aren't interested in devices without an internet connection because their customers want access to streaming services, he said. Connected TVs are also more enticing since they're cheap, so TV makers can subsidize the cost by selling data instead.

"It's been mooted that TV manufacturers aren't making any money on the TV themselves, they're monetizing the data that they generate," said Ken Munro, founder of security company Pen Test Partners. "Or conversely, you'd get a bigger TV for the same price as a result of sharing your data."

The threat is real

The Samsung tweet wasn't the first signal about the threat of smart TVs. In 2017, WikiLeaks released documents that claimed to show how the CIA hacked smart TVs to use them as listening devices.

That same year, the Federal Trade Commission fined TV maker Vizio $2.2 million for collecting data on 11 million TVs without people's consent.

Best TVs under $4,000

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Connected devices like lightbulbs and locks still have their regular equivalent available in stores. But for TVs, people are running out of options for a disconnected experience. Without an alternative to smart TVs, Munro recommended that companies have these privacy settings turned on by default.

When your smart TV comes out of the box, it's automatically set up to collect that data, and you have to wade through your settings to change it. Opting out of a smart TV and its tracking takes several steps, since the data collection is on by default. And preventing cyberattacks means regular maintenance, including having to make manual updates. 

Munro suggested a physical button to turn off a TV's connectivity, so people could at least have the option of keeping their devices secure and private.

It's similar to what smart speakers have, as Google and Amazon both have devices where you can turn off its microphone with a button.

"They should ask for explicit consent and also have a button to turn on radio-frequency and ethernet connectivity, so we can have a dumb TV if we want to," Munro said.