Owning a smart TV is one of the most convenient perks of our modern digital world. This is, of course, a TV that 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 your smart TV is not just gobbling up your viewing data. In some cases, it's also gathering information about your home.
So, can you minimize your smart TV's snooping activities? Our advice: Turn off its tracking features.
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.
What is ACR and how do you turn it off?
Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) is a smart TV technology that tries to identify the content that you're playing on your TV by analyzing its pixels.
Since ACR acts on the pixel level, ACR can identify every ad, TV show or movie that you're playing on your TV including content from streaming boxes, cable/over-the-air TV, and even DVD and Blu-Ray disk players.
This data is then collected and can be used for marketing and targeted advertising purposes. If this all sounds too creepy to you, thankfully, there are ways to turn it off, depending on your TV's brand.
Vizio recently settled a class-action lawsuit that accused the company of keeping track of what owners watched without their permission. Although Vizio denies these allegations, it has agreed to pay Vizio TV owners up to $31 each to settle the case.
Note: Vizio was already fined by the FTC to the tune of $2.2 million in 2017 and also settled another class-action lawsuit in 2018 for $17 million.
If you own a Vizio smart TV, aside from the settlement money that you may be entitled to, you can also turn off your set's ACR features. Here's how:
On older Vizio TV sets that use Vizio Internet Apps (VIA), go to the TV's System, and then: Reset & Admin >> Smart Interactivity >> Off.
On Vizio smart TVs that use the newer SmartCast system, go to System >> Reset & Admin >> Viewing Data >> toggle it to Off.
A few years ago, Samsung got into some hot water when it was called out for transmitting voice command data from its smart TVs to a third-party provider.
Yes, it's nice to be able to control your TV with your voice, but if you're concerned about your privacy, you can turn off its voice control, ACR and ad tracking completely.
On newer Samsung sets, go to Settings >> Support >> scroll down to Terms & Policies. Here you can turn off Viewing Information Services (Samsung's ACR technology), Internet-based Advertising (for personalized ad tracking) and Voice Recognition Services.
On older Samsung smart TVs, go to the TV's Smart Hub menu >> Settings >> Support >> look for Terms & Policy >> then disable SyncPlus and Marketing . You can disable Voice Recognition Services in this section, too.
Keep in mind that turning off your Samsung TV's Voice Recognition Services will disable its voice commands.
LG's ACR technology is baked into its newer WebOS-powered smart TVs and it is known as LivePlus. To turn this off, go to Settings >> All Settings >> scroll down to General >>scroll down to a setting called LivePlus >> toggle it to Off.
To limit other forms of data collection on your LG smart TV, go back to Settings >> All Settings >> scroll down to General >> About This TV >> User Agreements>> toggle Personalized Advertising to Off.
Amazon Fire TV Edition
Amazon's Fire TV platform is baked in some smart TVs made by Toshiba and Insignia. Although Amazon said that it does not use ACR to identify content on Fire TV Edition TVs, it can still collect data about the over-the-air channels that you watch and streaming apps that you use.
To turn this off, go to your TV's Settings >> Applications >> then turn off "Collect App and Over-the-Air Usage Data."
You can also opt out of personalized ads by going to Settings >> Preferences >> scroll down to Advertising ID then turn Internet-based Ads off.
On Roku-powered smart TVs, you can turn off ACR by going to Settings >> scroll down then select Privacy >> Smart TV Experience.
Next, uncheck "Use Information for TV Inputs" to disable ACR. Although this will stop your Roku TV from identifying your content on the pixel level, Roku can still collect data about the Roku TV streaming channels you've installed and use.
To prevent personalized ads on your Roku profile, go to Settings >> Privacy >> Advertising then check "Limit ad tracking." Note: This setting is also available on Roku streaming gadgets.
Another way advertisers track you through your smart TV is through a service called Samba TV.
How widespread is Samba TV? According to a New York Times 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.
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."
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.
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 to Samba TV?
Have you opted into Samba TV's service without even realizing it?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Your other options
A few other options are simple but maybe impractical, such as disconnecting your smart appliances from the internet. This, of course, renders gadgets that rely on an internet connection, like smart speakers or the web features of smart TVs, totally useless and may not be a viable option for some people.
Additionally, if you're worried about the security implications of this emerging world of web-connected "Internet of Things" appliances, maybe just stay away from purchasing them altogether. If you think the convenience of having these smart gadgets is not worth the risk, then it's your choice to keep them out of your home.
Bonus: If you have a Vizio smart TV, you may be entitled to a portion of a settlement the company has agreed to on charges of tracking owners' viewing habits without their permission. Tap or click here to find out how to file for compensation.