Your smart TV's privacy policy explained

  • While people understand that their smart televisions have microphones, cameras and tracking software, they don't fully understand how much of this information they've actually agreed to share with companies.

    While people understand that their smart televisions have microphones, cameras and tracking software, they don't fully understand how much of this information they've actually agreed to share with companies. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Posted4/22/2017 7:22 AM

Let's be honest here -- most of us don't read the privacy policies for smart televisions. And even if we try to, it's often difficult to read them, particularly on a television screen. Some televisions even display the massive policies five lines at a time. Reaction to recent controversies involving Vizio and Samsung televisions, for example, have highlighted that while people understand that their televisions have microphones, cameras and tracking software, they don't fully understand how much of this information they've actually agreed to share with companies.

So we asked a few legal experts who specialize in privacy -- Christopher Dore of the Chicago-based law firm Edelson, Danielle Citron of the University of Maryland, William McGeveran of the University of Minnesota and Bradley Shear of Maryland-based Shear Law -- to explain what we're really getting into when we hit the "I agree" button.


We looked at the privacy policies of leading smart television makers: Samsung, LG and Vizio. You may notice from the excerpts that the tone and type of language in these policies don't really vary much from company to company, so this should give you an idea of what to look for regardless of your television maker.

• Voice recognition data

Many televisions have voice recognition features that let you order your television around without having to fumble through menus or hit multiple buttons. For consumers, that could make your television easier to operate. Companies collect and keep vocal recordings to improve their own software, though they do their best to strip out personal information. The privacy trade-off here, legal experts say, is that there are always ways this information could be taken out of context, and that a snippet of your voice asking for a show could be used against you.

Example language, from Samsung:

"To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some interactive voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service provider (currently, Nuance Communications, Inc.) that converts your interactive voice commands to text and to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. Samsung will collect your interactive voice commands only when you make a specific search request to the Smart TV by clicking the activation button either on the remote control or on your screen and speaking into the microphone on the remote control."

• Unexpected data collection

Sometimes these policies cover information you may not expect to see in a policy about your television, an indication of how many services are now tied to your television. For example, Samsung has a section about "Fitness data." These services tend to be optional, so you only have to share that information if you want to -- in Samsung's case, the company also does a good job, the experts said, of explaining how the data will be applied.

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Example language, from Samsung:

"To provide you with personalized fitness recommendations, SmartTV services enable you to create a profile that contains certain basic information about yourself, including your height, weight and date of birth. You can delete such a profile at any time by following the directions in the service's preferences (or settings) screen."

• Viewing data

Companies collect viewing data -- information about what you're watching and when -- to feed data into their advertising systems. For consumers, the idea is that you would see more relevant ads on your screen.

Example language, from LG:

"This refers to information about your interactions with program content, including live TV content, movies, and video on demand. Viewing Information may include the name of the channel or program watched, requests to view content, details of actions taken while viewing (e.g., play, stop, pause, etc.), the duration that content was watched, and input method (RF, Component, HDMI)."

• Your data could end up where you least expect it

We've already outlined how television makers share information with other companies, such as advertisers and technical partners. But our legal experts highlighted that data collected through your television can also show up in places that are completely unexpected, because companies reserve a broad right to collect data to let you know about any "products and services." That includes, for example, data brokers -- firms that can gather information from several places to build a data profile of you and resell that information to other companies, including insurance companies or credit bureaus.


Example language, from Vizio:

"We will also use Personal Information to send you information about products and services that may be of interest to you, both from VIZIO and our third party partners. You will always have the opportunity to "opt-out" of such communications by unsubscribing or otherwise declining to receive further communications. Later on in this Privacy Policy, we provide you with more information on how to view, correct or remove your Personal Information."

• When the data is out of our hands

Also be aware that the company that makes your television isn't the only one that could be collecting information about you. As with apps on a phone, the applications you put on your television entitle those app-makers to collect their own types of information, which they may need to show you recommendations, for example, or give you accurate directions to somewhere. But those actions aren't covered by your television maker's privacy policy -- those are governed by the apps' own policies.

Example language, from Vizio:

"This Privacy Policy does not apply to the practices of any company or individual that VIZIO does not control. This Privacy Policy does not cover information on non-VIZIO applications, web services or tools that you download or access from a VIZIO product. It does not, for example, apply to any third party services or applications (such as Google Cast or Netflix) that you may access from VIZIO products. You should review the privacy policies of these applications and services to learn more about their privacy practices, which may differ significantly from VIZIO's."

• What they don't say

Our legal experts also said that what the companies don't say is almost as important as what they do say. Shear cautioned, for example, that companies very rarely say how long they'll keep the collected data -- so there's no way of knowing if they'll keep it for a month or for an eternity. On one hand, if you're using the service that requires your personal information, it's nice not to have to re-enter it. On the other, it does mean your data could stick around for a long time.

Example language, from LG:

"How long will LGE keep my personal information?

"We will take reasonable steps to make sure that we keep your personal information for as long as is necessary for us to provide you with LG Smart TV Services or for the purpose for which it was collected, or as required by applicable law."

• Overwhelmed?

If you're not ready to dive into a full privacy policy, experts said, one good way to limit your data collection is to only turn on features that you'll really use. "Even if you're not going to do work of hacking way through policy, it's generally a good principle not to have features activated on services if you don't use those features," McGeveran said. "You can bet that you are reducing the overall amount of data collection by doing that."

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