How to Stop Your Smart TV From Spying on You

There’s a good chance your smart TV is spying on you. Smart TVs often analyze the videos you’re watching and report back — whether you’re watching live TV, streaming videos on a service like Netflix, or playing local video files. Worse yet, this can be a security problem.

TVs should really just be dumb displays. Smart TVs not only have bad interfaces, they spy on what you’re watching even when you aren’t using those smarts. Their security practices are often pretty bad, too.

The Problem

Modern smart TVs often have “features” that inspect what you’re watching and report it back to some company’s servers. This data can be sold to marketers, or it could be tied to you somehow to create a better ad-targeting profile. Really, you’re not getting anything out of this the TV manufacturer just makes some more money with this data. Vizio just made headlines because such a feature is enabled by default on Vizio smart TVs.

This tracking doesn’t just apply to the smart TV’s apps even if you plug in a Roku or Apple TV and stream something from Netflix, the TV can analyze the picture it’s displaying and report that data back. It may report back on the channel number you’re watching if you’re watching live TV, or the filenames of local video files on a USB drive plugged into your smart TV.

Smart TVs also have questionable security protections. Vizio TVs transmitted this tracking data without any encryption, so other people can snoop on the snooping. They also connect to a server without checking it’s a legitimate server, so a man-in-the-middle attack could send commands back to the TV.

Vizio says it’s fixed this problem and TVs will automatically update to a new firmware. But are those smart TVs even checking to ensure they’re downloading legitimate firmware files with correct digital signatures? Based on TV manufacturers’ cavalier attitude to security in general, we’re concerned.

Some smart TVs have built-in cameras and microphones — if the security is so shoddy in general, it would theoretically be possible for an attacker to spy on you through your TV.

Just Don’t Connect Your TV to Wi-Fi or Ethernet

Just don’t connect your smart TV to your home network and you’ll be protected from whatever built-in spying features it has and any security vulnerabilities that could be exploited.

Don’t connect your smart TV to your Wi-Fi network. If you have, go into your smart TV’s settings and disconnect it from the Wi-Fi. Don’t connect it to the network with an Ethernet cable, either. If you’ve already connected to the Wi-Fi network, try to get your smart TV to forget the password. If you can’t, you may need to reset it to its factory default settings — don’t give it the Wi-Fi password when you set it up again.

This will also prevent your smart TV from embedding extra advertisements into other things you watch — yes, some Samsung smart TVs actually do that!

Get “smarts” on your TV by plugging in a streaming box like an Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, Fire TV, video game console, or one of the many other devices that works better and should be more secure than your smart TV. That box can be connected to the Internet.

Try to Disable the Spying Features (Not Recommended)

We recommend you just disconnect your smart TV from the network and be done with it. If it can’t connect to the Internet, it can’t cause you any problems — full stop. You won’t want to use its smart features when you can just use a superior streaming device, anyway.

If you do want to leave it connected to the network, you could try to disable the spying features. This will be a different process on different models of TVs.

Worse yet, just toggling the option may not do anything. Even if you don’t agree to Vizio’s privacy policy when setting up the TV, Vizio still enables the snooping features on your TV. Disabling the spying features may also not prevent the TV from being exploited through its security holes. New spying features could be automatically added in firmware updates.

If you really want to disable the spying features instead, you’ll find them somewhere in your TV’s settings menu. On Vizio TVs, this setting is named “Smart Interactivity” and it may be buried under System > Reset & Admin. Here are Vizio’s instructions for disabling it.

LG smart TVs may have a “Collection of watching info” setting. On some Samsung smart TVs, you can head into a “Smart Features” menu and disable “Voice recognition” to disable always-listening voice commands. Other smart TVs from other manufacturers may have many different settings named different things from model to model.

This is part of a larger problem with “the Internet of things,” which envisions modern appliances — everything from your toaster to the blender, microwave, and fridge — becoming “smart” and connecting to the network. As we’ve seen with Android smartphones, most device manufacturers don’t seem capable of creating secure software and updating it. Smart appliances sound alright, but the reality — spying and security holes — seems like a serious problem.
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