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Security & privacy

Millions of smart TVs are spying on us – here’s how to stop them

Owning a smart TV is one of the convenient perks of our modern digital world. This is when your TV directly connects to the internet and lets you access your streaming services and apps without the need for another external gadget.

The idea does make a lot of sense as it combines the best parts of a set-top box, a computer and a television into one streamlined appliance. Fewer wires, less clutter – smart TVs have undoubtedly changed the way many of us watch television.

But what price are we paying for this convenience? In return for that always-connected experience, are we allowing our smart TVs to spy on us too?

Don’t look now but you won’t believe how these smart TVs are not just gobbling up your viewing data, they’re also gathering information about your home!

Samba TV = Spying TV

According to a new report from The New York Times, Samba TV, one of the biggest TV content tracking services around, can quietly track essentially everything that appears on a TV screen on a second-to-second basis.

And I mean everything – broadcast TV, services like Netflix or Prime Video, streaming boxes and even video games. Unlike other tracking methods, Samba TV’s software can virtually read the pixels displayed on your TV and identify the content that’s being shown.

But wait, there’s more! Samba TV’s system can also reach out to other devices in your home that are connected to the same network as the TV.

This means aside from the ability to recognize and track content regardless of source, Samba TV can also create a “device map” of your home.

What is Samba TV?

Samba TV describes itself as “a cutting-edge technology layer on your TV that understands what your TV is playing, regardless of the source.”

It also “communicates with your devices, enabling personalized recommendations and unique second-screen experiences for compatible TVs and apps.”

How widespread is Samba TV? According to the report, the company has struck deals with about a dozen popular TV makers to have its software placed on several models.

Brands with Samba TV include Sony, Sharp, TCL, Element, Sanyo, Toshiba, Westinghouse, Seiki and Philips.

The company said that it has collected viewing data from 13.5 million smart TVs in the U.S. so far.

Samba TV itself doesn’t sell its tracking data directly. Instead, advertisers and marketing firms pay them to send targeted ads to other connected gadgets in a home.

For example, they can direct ads and recommendations to your smartphone after a client’s TV commercial plays. Advertisers can also add Samba TV tags to their websites to let them know how many people visit after watching one of their ads.

Did you opt-in?

Samba TV opt-in page

Have you opted into Samba TV’s service without even realizing it?

See, when a Samba TV-enabled TV is set up for the first time, consumers are encouraged to opt-in to the service and agree to its terms of service and privacy policy.

The opt-in sounds enticing enough – “Interact with your favorite shows. Get recommendations based on the content you love. Connect your devices for exclusive content and special offers,” it states.

The problem? The nitty-gritty details of its terms of service are only available online via browser or if you click through to another screen on your TV.

Although these documents do disclose their tracking practices, they are also long and difficult to understand. The company’s terms of service exceed 6,500 words and the privacy policy is over 4,000 words! (Who actually reads these cryptic terms of service anyway?)

It’s no wonder that more than 90 percent of people choose to opt-in not realizing the amount of information they’re giving up to the company.

Are you watching TV or is it watching you? Can the new generation of smart TV’s be hacked? Listen to this free Komando Consumer Tech Update podcast and find out.

How to opt-out of Samba TV

If you’re totally creeped out by Samba TV’s data collection and you do want to opt-out, here’s how.

Smart TVs

According to Samba TV’s website, you can opt-out of its smart TV services anytime by finding the option in a TV’s “Settings” page or within the “Interactive TV Service” user interface.

If applicable, another way to limit spying is by enabling “Limit Ad Tracking” from the “Privacy” menu within the “Interactive TV Settings” on your smart TV.

Samba TV wrote that if you do this, its advertising platform will opt your Samba TV ad ID out of targeted advertising based on content viewing.

You can also opt out of Samba TV web and app-based interest advertising with these steps:

Web Browsers

You can opt-out of having Samba use your web browsing information for interest-based advertisements by visiting the Network Advertising Initiative’s (NAI) opt-out page or by accessing the “Opt-out of Samba TV Ads” option within the company’s privacy policy page.

Mobile Devices

According to Samba TV, the most effective and up-to-date method is to limit ad tracking on your mobile device.

Here’s how you do this:

iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch – Go to Settings >> Privacy >> Advertising >> Toggle “Limit Ad Tracking” to On. You can also reset your Advertising Identifier in this section to unlink any previous data associated with your ID.

Android phones – Generally, on an Android gadget, you can go to Settings >> Google >> Ads >> Toggle “Opt out of Ads Personalization” to On. Similar to iOS gadgets you can also reset your gadget’s advertising ID in this page.

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