Living in 1984: Is your TV actually watching you?

Published on Friday, October 4, 2019 - 15:29 by Camilla Winlo

We are 34 years past 1984, and whilst George Orwell may have been a few decades out – he certainly gave his audience one accurate prediction to dwell on.

News recently broke that smart TV companies are collecting vast quantities of personal information and then passing it on to Google and Amazon. Which essentially means that you’re watching your TV watching you.


How has this dystopian prediction come true?

Nowadays, as has been the case with most connected devices for quite some time, ad tracking is incredibly common in smart TVs.

Companies that track these ads make money by creating big, multi-dimensional profiles of people based not only on what they say they like, but also on what they do.

What programmes do they watch? What games do they play?

All of this data is captured and used to make up a profile.

This means smart TV usage is incredibly interesting to ad tracking and marketing companies, because it helps the business understand what kinds of products and services people are likely to want based on what they view and do. 

This enables the company to target them with ads for the products they are most likely to buy. 

This isn’t ground-breaking news – individuals have been accepting cookies on PCs and mobile devices for a quite some time, without giving it too much thought.

So why is the perception different, and potentially more unsettling, when it comes to TVs?

Historically, what we watched on TV was always private – it was a ‘one way’ relationship. PCs and other devices have been clearly designed to be ‘two way’ since the early days of ‘Web 2.0’ at the turn of the millennium.

TV companies and advertisers used to have to recruit people to panels that monitored TV viewing habits. There was a clear choice – and limited opportunities – to take part.

In this new era, for many people, it comes as a surprise that simply buying a new, ‘better’ TV means you have suddenly signed up to be tracked by it. Plus, when people discover that smart TVs are tracking them, it reminds them of the famous novel 1984.

For those that need the SparkNotes edition: the story is centred around a society where Big Brother spies on people through TVs. Anyone who has read 1984 is likely to have a deep-seated reaction to being tracked via their TV, because it echoes the dystopian sentiments of the book.

Additionally, the concept of something always being on (or sleeping) that might be listening to what you’re saying, distinguishing between different voices and monitoring what you’re doing, presents a relatable “human” threat.

Cookie banners on websites may not currently offer as much choice and control as they should, but at least they remind you tracking is happening. Your TV doesn’t give you those warnings in such a visible way – which given the medium seems a wasted opportunity for clarity. 

Are these companies breaking any privacy regulations such as the GDPR? 

The GDPR mandates that any company which processes personal data needs to ensure it complies with the requirements that make it lawful.

In the case of ad tracking, this includes collecting active, informed consent - consent that is based on an appropriate level of information, so the data subject understands all of the ways the collected data will be used by the company.

To date, we don’t think there are many smart TV companies – or website owners for that matter - that do this particularly well. In particular the clear explanation of the purposes and the gaining or granular consent are areas which may need to be strengthened.

If users don’t know their data is being collected, or they don’t know who is going receive it or how it will be used, it is likely that smart TV companies are breaching the GDPR.

This is especially the case if there is evidence to show that a user wouldn’t expect to be tracked, and would be unhappy if they were. This may ultimately represent a breach of transparency – which is a fundamental tenet of the new privacy legislation.

Do we need stronger regulations to curb ad tracking?

Tracking can be beneficial to individuals in many ways. It helps ensure you receive more relevant advertising - including better recommendations for programmes you might like to watch.

However, it can also be intrusive, so every individual should have the ability to decide whether they want their data to be processed in that way.

Originally, new ‘ePrivacy’ regulations were due to launch at the same time as the GDPR but, because this is such a complex area, the EU is still working on the final legislation. In the meantime, there are clear rules on what organisations need to do if they want to track users. 

The real problem isn’t not so much a lack of regulation, but that ad tracking is perceived as so vital to driving commerce for organisations. No-one wants to be the first to give people real choices because they fear it will make them less competitive than their peers - which means they must assume that people would not want to be tracked for advertising if they understood it.

Both organisations and regulators care about the things the general public feel strongly about. The best way to send a message is to turn off cookies, and start asking them what personal data of yours they are processing and how it Is being used. If enough people start doing this, companies will change.

As individuals, we already have some power to choose.

If you don’t want your smart TV to track you, you can switch these features off in the TV’s settings menu:



Sony: Sony TVs make this harder. You will need to re-run the set up wizard and disable the SAMBA INTERACTIVE TV USER AGREEMENTS

Amazon Fire Stick: Go to SETTINGS>PREFERENCES>ADVERTISING ID and turn off ‘INTEREST-BASED ADS’. This may be under SETTINGS>SYSTEM for some older models.

Apple TV: Go to SETTINGS>PRIVACY>LIMIT AD TRACKING and switch it on. Some older models many need you to go to SETTINGS>GENERAL and switch ’SEND DATA TO APPLE’ to ’NO’.

Google Chromecast: Tap the three dots in the corner of your home screen to open the menu and go to ‘DEVICES’. Choose your device, then tap the three dots again and choose ’SETTINGS’. Untick the box marked ’SEND CHROMECAST DEVICE USAGE DATA AND CRASH REPORTS TO GOOGLE’.

 It’s important to understand that this only stops your data being collected by your smart TV – it doesn’t stop platforms like Netflix, for example, from monitoring your viewing habits.

What does this mean for organisations that want to use ad tracking moving forwards?

Fundamentally, it makes no sense for companies to hide what types of data they collect and process.

People can be very clever at protecting their privacy - and left to their own devices will usually do this in ways that can cause real headaches for businesses. They will stop providing data, provide data that isn’t true, or mix true and false data together. 

Companies can only make good business decisions and provide beneficial targeting if people trust them enough to supply accurate, reliable data. The only way to build that trust is for a company to be transparent in what it’s going to do with it.

Typically, a company will only feel comfortable being completely transparent if it knows its customers are going to be happy with what it’s saying.

If organisations believe what they are doing is right, they should be proud to explain it to their users. 

What should organisations be doing to get it right?

We train teams to build privacy into their products and services, and often the biggest barrier we see isn’t any desire to do the wrong thing, or to hide things from customers. Most of our clients are really passionate about doing the right thing. 

But when privacy is seen as a compliance requirement, it tends to be viewed as a task to complete at the end project, not an approach to bake into every aspect from the get go.

People can also forget about the information gap between themselves their users. This can result in things being explained badly, or viewed as too complex or boring for non-experts. Lack of knowledge and control makes people feel anxious – so it’s essential that all organisations find better ways of doing this. 

Ensuring every function across a project develops an understanding of the importance of privacy - ahead of introducing new technologies - will inspire proactive, long-term change that will produce real results; not only in reducing business risk, but also improving products for customers.

At DQM GRC, we help organisations bake privacy into the project and product lifecycle from the very beginning. Our Privacy-by-Design Training Workshop is centred around active discussions and team-based activities (involving lemons, playdoh, and blindfolds).

This learning-by-doing approach makes privacy training fun and ensures teams in every function develop a Privacy by Design attitude.

To find out more about how we can help your organisation, call us now on 01494 442900 or complete our enquiry form:

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