If you have purchased a TV over the past few years, there's a high chance it features smart capabilities, tapping into your Internet to beam streaming content. Smart functionality is a standard amenity these days. Lower pricing is also a trend, despite the advanced functionality, but have you ever wondered why costs have come down so much over the past few years? It might be because your TV is watching you as much as you watch it.
Princeton University and the University of Chicago co-published a study titled, "Watching You Watch: The Tracking Ecosystem of Over-the-Top TV Streaming Devices," and it contains some interesting findings. The study focused on various streaming services and products, including Roku TV and Amazon Fire TV.
"To shed light on the privacy practices of such platforms, we developed a system that can automatically download OTT apps (also known as channels), and interact with them while intercepting the network traffic and performing best-effort TLS interception. We used this smart crawler to visit more than 2,000 channels on two popular OTT platforms, namely Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Our results show that tracking is pervasive on both OTT platforms," the study says.
According to the study, 69 percent of Roku channels and 89 percent of Amazon Fire TV channels directed traffic to known trackers. The study's authors also claim to have discovered a "widespread practice of collecting and transmitting unique identifiers." This included things like device IDs, serial numbers, Wi-Fi MAC addresses, and SSIDs. At times, this even happened over unencrypted connections, the study says.
If the study's findings are accurate, it means our smart TVs and services are tracking our viewing and interaction habits, and not necessarily in an anonymous fashion. Transmitting the data over an unencrypted connection adds insult to injury.
To rub more salt in the wound, there's not a whole lot you can do about it, unless you're willing to disconnect and not use your TV's smart functions. On a desktop PC, there are software mitigations users can take against being tracked. But with smart TVs, defensive measures are not offered.
The study does not make this link, but the level of surveillance could be why smart TVs and streaming hardware have become so cheap. It might be a subsidized model that is helping to drive prices down. Think of the earlier days of computing, when prebuilt PCs came riddled with bloat (some still do, but the situation is vastly improved). It's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the general concept is similar—instead of preinstalled bloatware, the apps themselves are money generators through targeted advertising.
Yes, you can disable targeted advertising on some platforms, but other identifiable information can still be transmitted. But hey, at least that big screen TV was relatively cheap!