LG's introduction of new smart TVs running the WebOS operating system has been one of the worst-kept secrets of the CES technology show in Las Vegas this week. But other secrets remain. Will LG be adding a personalized recommendation service, à la Netflix, to its TVs? And was a recent viewer data-collection scandal involving LG smart TVs a hint at how the recommendation service will work?
LG has just introduced a thoroughly revamped interface on its smart TVs, which ditches the standard grid of app icons for a slicker multitasking interface. It allows users to preview what's on services such as, Netflix for example, without having to start up Netflix app, as well as to see what's playing on cable or satellite.
The new LG TVs also offer a universal search function — something that WebOS initiated in 2009, before other mobile OSes had the ability. LG's search scours both online video and broadcast TV sources for the show or movie someone is looking for.
One feature missing from the revamped user experience is a personalized recommendation engine, similar to what Netflix has for video content or Amazon has for an array of media. Instead, LG merely creates "recommendations" based on what's popular and what's new.
Recommendation requires collecting data
To create personalized recommendations, LG would have to collect data on what each viewer is watching. The company has in fact done this, but in a stealthy way that came to light only when a pair of British tech bloggers decided to analyze the data being sent out by their LG smart TVs.
It turns out the devices were collecting not only records of everything the users watched, but also the names of files stored on devices, such as PCs, connected to the same home network as the TVs.
This came to light in posts by two tech bloggers, one named "Mark" who used the Twitter handle @RRRambles, and another who went by the name "DoctorBeet" and was identified as Jason Huntley, an IT consultant from Hull, England.
Huntley found that his TV, an LG 42LN575V manufactured May 2013 and intended only for the British market, continued to transmit data even after he switched off an item in the TV's settings called "Collection of watching info." It was set to "on" by default.
After the story broke in November, LG soon issued a statement that the inability to change the watching info setting was a glitch, as was the collection of filenames from a user's network.
The company also promised to issue a software patch to fix the glitches, which LG has since done, according to Sam Chang, the head of LG's Silicon Valley Lab, which developed the new smart TV interface.
Collecting viewer information is not necessarily controversial. Netflix does it to provide personalized recommendations, which are now specific even to individual users sharing the same account.
The difference with LG was that customers didn't know that the company was collecting the data, and even after they learned it was, they assumed it would no longer be doing so after they had changed the privacy setting.
LG offered only a vague explanation for why it was collecting data. It did not rule out tracking such content on TVs or other connected devices in the future.
In November, an LG representative told Tom's Guide by email that, "While the file names are not stored, the transmission of such file names was part of a new feature being readied to search for data from the Internet (metadata) related to the program being watched in order to deliver a better viewing experience."
Truly smart TVs need to know what you watch
Fast-forward to this week's CES tech show in Las Vegas and LG's new smart TVs. [[Link to article when published.]] The sets have, according to the TV maker's descriptions, the ability to draw from a host of data sources — searching and organizing content from video apps, broadcast TV, connected game consoles and perhaps soon, DVRs.
With all that information, LG's smart TVs will have detailed knowledge of what people watch.
Asked in December if LG would add personalized recommendations, Chang told reporters (including this reporter) that LG is "looking at that."
As users set up the new TVs, Chang said, they will see a terms of service agreement that mentions data collection. Consumers can decline the agreement and still use most functions of the TV, he said, except universal search — because that happens on LG's servers — and the recommendation service.
Did LG mislead customers?
In the same December interview, Chang emphasized that "We don't collect any information that's PID — personally identifiable data."
He said that any data goes only into anonymous profiles, which would be enough to set up a personalized recommendation service.
There are a lot of indications that LG may go that way. Many companies collect user data for advertising or recommendations, but they don't generally hide the fact. (And they face public ire if they do.) LG did hide, or at least obscure, its actions, perhaps to keep its future product plans secret.
That's a dangerous policy — guarding future product plans so vigorously that customers are not informed that their personal data is being harvested, nor what it might be used for.