Government Confirms Vizio TVs Spy on You: How to Stop It

Senior Writer
Updated

UPDATE: This story was updated on February 9 with a quote from Vizio's general counsel.

The average consumer has at least one or two companies tracking his or her activity and selling it to advertisers, but TV-maker Vizio may have gone too far. The company has agreed to pay $2.2 million in fines over accusations that it collected data about viewers' personal habits from 11 million smart TV sets, then sold the data to advertisers and marketers, all without telling consumers or asking for their consent.

The Federal Trade Commission announced yesterday (Feb. 6) that a court ordered Vizio to "prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent for its data collection and sharing practices" going forward. Vizio used a process called automated content recognition (ACR) to collect this data from smart TVs, then transmitted the data back to home base for sales to third parties.

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Vizio used ACR to take partial screenshots to not only figure out which channel viewers were tuned to, but also to tell which DVDs, Blu-ray disks or streaming services they were watching. (It's not clear whether video games could be similarly "fingerprinted.")

Vizio bundled that data with information about the "sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership, and household value," according to the FTC.

The court order says that IP addresses (which can used be to pinpoint home addresses), user IDs and geolocation data pertaining to home consumers was also collected.

In a second statement, the FTC noted that the "settlement stops Vizio's unauthorized tracking," but also advised users to look for an ACR setting in their smart TVs' options menu. On Vizio sets, ACR has sometimes been titled as "Smart Interactivity."

The fines will be collected by the FTC and the state of New Jersey.

If you don't see an ACR setting under System Settings, here's how to disable Vizio's Smart Interactivity.

  • Press Menu on your TV's remote, select System on your TV.
  • select Reset & Admin, highlight Smart Interactivity
  • Press the right arrow to turn it off. (A Consumer Reports piece shows you how to do it on Samsung and LG smart TVs as well.)

If you're worried about information Vizio may have collected about you, we've got good and bad news. On the upside, Vizio must delete the data on its end by June 6. On the downside, the court order doesn't do anything to force the third parties who bought the data to delete it.

We've reached out to Vizio for comment and will update this story should we receive a response.

Update, Feb. 9: In a statement, Vizio quoted General Counsel Jerry Huang who stated "Going forward, this resolution sets a new standard for best industry privacy practices for the collection and analysis of data collected from today’s internet-connected televisions and other home devices." He added a claim that "The ACR program never paired viewing data with personally identifiable information such as name or contact information, and the Commission did not allege or contend otherwise."