The smart TV privacy issue is similar to the recent Facebook scandal about user information being shared without our knowledge to a company connected with the last US presidential campaign and election.
While ad tracking is standard on the internet, smart TV are different because they track the shows you stream on their built-in apps. That means they can recognize any show you’re watching along, any ad that appears on the screen, and any game you or the kids play.
And they can do it from any device connected to the TV, including whatever your kids are doing on the family tablet or phone, whether that’s online homework, gaming, or FaceTime with Grammie.
This technology is called Automatic Content Recognition and usually provided by a company you probably never heard of, called Samba TV. The New York Times describes it as simultaneously fascinating and creepy.
Just as with tracking the websites you visit on your desktop, laptop, tablet or phone, TV tracking is designed to provide more relevant ads and recommendations based on what you watch.
Some of us may find that useful to cut the clutter, but if you’d prefer not to share everything you watch with TV manufacturers, you can turn this feature off. Think of it as the TV version of clearing out the cookies on your other internet-connected devices.
There’s no way to avoid tracking entirely, but you can reduce the invasion of your personal space. And protect your kids.
How to turn off smart TV tracking
Here’s how to make your smart TV a little less smart by shutting off its tracking, via these step-by-step instructions, brand-by-brand, by NY Times tech reporter Whitson Gordon:
If you don’t use the smart features on your TV, you can block tracking just by disconnecting your TV from the internet.
The easiest is to simply unplug the Ethernet cable or disconnect it from your Wi-Fi network in the TV’s settings. Without internet access, the TV can’t send information to anyone, meaning your data stays at home.
However, that also means your TV’s built-in apps will not be able to stream any movies or shows. So, this solution works only if you get your streaming from a set-top box like the Apple TV, or don’t stream at all.
If that isn’t an option, you can keep streaming from your TV and turn automatic content recognition off.
The instructions are a bit different depending on what make or model TV you have, but here’s where to look on the most popular brands.
Samsung TVs: Opt Out of Viewing Information Services
LG TVs: Turn Off LivePlus
For LG sets, press the Settings button on your remote and head to All Settings > General > LivePlus and turn it off.
You may also want to turn off personalized advertising from All Settings > General > About This TV > User Agreements from the General page.
Sony TVs: Re-Run the Initial Setup
Modern Sony smart TVs run Google’s Android TV operating system, which doesn’t have easy access to this setting. Instead, you need to re-run the TV’s setup wizard. To do so, jump to the home screen and head to Settings > Initial Setup.
Click through the wizard (taking care to avoid changing things like your network settings) until you reach the Samba “Interactive TV” user agreements. Disable this setting.
Vizio TVs: Disable Viewing Data
Vizio users will find this option by opening the menu and looking under System > Reset & Admin. Highlight the “Viewing Data” option and press the right arrow to turn it off.
Some older sets may call this “Smart Interactivity” instead.
TCL and Other Roku TVs: Disable Information From Other Inputs
TVs from TCL, Philips, Sharp and some other brands use Roku as their built-in smart software.
On these TVs, you can disable Automatic Content Recognition by opening the home screen heading to Settings > Privacy > Smart TV Experience and disabling “Use Information for TV Inputs”.
You may also want to head to Settings > Privacy > Advertising and turn on “Limit Ad Tracking”.
Disable Ad Tracking on Your Other Set-Top Boxes
Your TV isn’t the only thing tracking your usage. Independent set-top boxes like the Roku and Apple TV don’t use Automatic Content Recognition — the feature that scans everything from your screen — but they do still have certain tracking features built-in, usually logging which apps you use and when.
If you want to increase your privacy, you may want to disable these features as well. Here’s where you’ll find them:
Roku: Go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising and enable “Limit Ad Tracking.”
Amazon Fire TV: Head to Settings > Preferences > Advertising ID and turn “Interest-Based Ads” off. Older Fire TVs may have this option under Settings > System instead.
Google Chromecast: From the Home app on your phone or tablet, tap the three dots in the corner to open the menu and go to Devices. Choose your Chromecast, select the three dots menu, and tap Settings. Uncheck the “Send Chromecast device usage data and crash reports to Google” box.
Apple TV: Jump to Settings > Privacy > Limit Ad Tracking and turn it on. If you have an older device, head to Settings > General and set “Send Data to Apple” to No.
There’s no way to escape all tracking, of course, especially if you’re streaming. These settings may limit some data collection, but even they won’t stop the streaming services themselves: apps like Netflix will always track what you watch to provide recommendations, and there’s no getting around that.
So if you want true privacy, you’ll need to divorce yourself from streaming services entirely.
You’ll just need to decide how much you really care that your smart TV is watching you.
This article was adapted from one published in the New York Times.
All images courtesy of the New York Times.