The US Federal Trade Commission has found that one of the leading manufacturers of smart televisions recorded users’ viewing data without their explicit permission.
So is Big Brother watching you? Orwell’s sinister suspicion is nearly 70 years old, but our reasons to be fearful keep on growing – not just from a super-state, but blackmailers, cyber-terrorists and maybe even the manufacturers themselves.
Vizio, the company in question, not only gathered individual information, rather than aggregated statistics, but sold some of the data to advertisers. What’s more, it installed the technology on older televisions via an update – so it wasn’t there when the purchasers bought the original product.
The regulator’s $2.2 million fine over misuse of tracking software is a statement of intent to protect consumer welfare. However, it feeds into a wider concern about the place of smart technology in our lives.
At what price the Internet of Things?
Sharing our personal data is the price we pay for the Internet of Things. If we want fridges that order our milk, or even online retailers that suggest box-sets we might like, we implicitly accept that they will collect information – when we’re not actively feeding it to them.
The nervousness comes from something that Orwell didn’t see coming: Big Data. IT that can not only watch, but intelligently filter and process on a huge scale, makes us feel less safe in a crowd.
Smart televisions pose a particular problem. At a simple level, they are not usually accessed by a passcode or fingerprint, like a computer or mobile phone. And on many media services, default settings make it easy to accept the provider’s terms.
Manufacturers don’t see security as a selling point, understandably preferring to focus on the visible technology of HD and 3D screens, rather than the invisible IT within. But the issues are as much cultural as technical. We grew up with Saturday evening entertainment; but we don’t yet think of the television as a place we store our personal data.
Vizio has been ordered to delete information gathered before March 2016, and now insists it is “leading the way” on viewer information consent. But smart TV needs smart consumers too.