Smart TVs are found spying on users and leaking data to companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Google and Netflix, according to two separate studies conducted by university researchers and independent research done by a Washington Post reporter. Researchers from Northeastern University and Imperial College London, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago all analyzed how smart TVs collect and then pass on information about users' viewing habits and preferences to partner companies. Seventy two devices was found sending data to a third party and not the device manufacturer itself.
Researchers stated that the companies most frequently contacted by the devices included Google, Akamai and Microsoft, mostly likely because they provide the cloud and networking services for smart-device operation. The Princeton report found that the information being sent were harvested through the use of trackers, which are mainly managed by Google and Facebook. Eighty-nine percent of Amazon Fire TV channels and 69 percent of Roku channels contained trackers collecting information about viewing habits and preferences. These trackers also have information that can uniquely identify the device and where it's being used, including device serial numbers and IDs.
Washington Post reporter Geoffrey A. Fowler also discovered similar patterns from smart TVs, breaking it down even further to identify spying from pixels and screenshots. Fowler used the open-source tool IoT Inspector from Princeton University to observe how his own Samsung smart TV—as well as other popular devices from TCL, Roku TV, Vizio and LG—were tracking his viewing activity. Fowler found that on many smart TVs, a few nosy pixels report back to the manufacturer everything that crosses the screen. Others send snapshots of the entire screen.
These reports highlights the many ways in which a smart TV is the latest IoT device, alongside virtual assistants like Alexa and smartphones, to keep tabs on consumers for technology and media companies. These companies have already been scrutinized, criticized and fined for data-privacy issues. With a third of U.S. households estimated to cut the cord by 2020, this problem will only get worse.