In November 2015, Julia Angwin of ProPublica explained how Vizio was quietly monitoring everything that was watched on its televisions, and selling that recorded data to advertisers. Worse still, this creepy feature was turned on by default and users weren’t told about it.
The FTC got involved and today announced that they would be fining Vizio the paltry sum of $2.2 million. Libby Watson, Gizmodo:
While the court order requires Vizio to delete all data collected prior to March 2016, it doesn’t require them to stop tracking data—just to more adequately get consent for doing so. So don’t expect smart TVs to stop at least trying to track your Real Housewives binging any time soon.
Vizio is privately owned, but their annual revenue was estimated by Forbes to be about $2.9 billion. It will take them less than seven hours to earn enough money to pay their fine.
Lesley Fair of the FTC:
What did Vizio know about what was going on in the privacy of consumers’ homes? On a second-by-second basis, Vizio collected a selection of pixels on the screen that it matched to a database of TV, movie, and commercial content. What’s more, Vizio identified viewing data from cable or broadband service providers, set-top boxes, streaming devices, DVD players, and over-the-air broadcasts. Add it all up and Vizio captured as many as 100 billion data points each day from millions of TVs.
Vizio then turned that mountain of data into cash by selling consumers’ viewing histories to advertisers and others. And let’s be clear: We’re not talking about summary information about national viewing trends. According to the complaint, Vizio got personal. The company provided consumers’ IP addresses to data aggregators, who then matched the address with an individual consumer or household. Vizio’s contracts with third parties prohibited the re-identification of consumers and households by name, but allowed a host of other personal details – for example, sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education, and home ownership. And Vizio permitted these companies to track and target its consumers across devices.
When I linked to Angwin’s story, I mentioned that I was then in the market for a television. I was initially leaning towards Vizio, but after hearing about this and the similarly intrusive practices of Samsung and LG “smart” TVs, I ended up buying a plain LCD TV and hooking it up to a fourth-generation Apple TV. I don’t regret it.