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Roku TVs Improve Search and Recommendations, but With a Trade-Off

James K. Willcox

If you've ever struggled to find a particular movie or TV show among the variety of streaming services, Roku is trying to make that a bit easier.

As part of the company's latest version of its operating system—OS 7.6—Roku can now search across more than 300 streaming channels to find what you're looking for, organized by lowest price first. The new OS update will be completed by June, and will work with all Roku devices made in the last six years.

But another new feature, called More Ways to Watch, being rolled out to Roku TVs may be a bit more controversial. The feature can make personalized streaming recommendations based on the show or movie you're currently watching. The trade-off, though, is privacy, since this feature uses automated content recognition (ACR) technology to track your viewing habits.

ACR, a Double-Edged Sword

More Ways to Watch basically watches everything you watch to make streaming program and movie recommendations tailored to your preferences. This feature is being rolled out on high-definition and 2017 4K Roku TVs now, with an update for 2016 4K Roku TV models slated for the summer.

These types of recommendations are fairly common in smart TVs these days, but the ACR technology used to make these suggestions has come under fire recently due to concerns about the amount of information being collected on how, what, and when you watch your TV.

In a recent CR Consumer Voices survey, 65 percent of Americans said they lacked confidence that their personal data was being kept private and secure. We recently wrote about how you can turn off these smart TV snooping features in smart TVs from LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio.

With the OS update, Roku TVs will monitor not only what you watch directly from the TV, but also what you watch through cable or satellite boxes or broadcast antennas connected to the TV.

Based on your viewing information, the TV will make suggestions about other available streaming content, such as additional episodes from the same series, or similar types of shows or movies. And if you tune in to a show that's already started, you may have an option to watch that show elsewhere from the beginning.

To its credit, Roku is being very upfront that it is using ACR technology—something many other TV brands don't exactly advertise. In fact, you have to opt in to the feature via an onscreen prompt before you can use it. That consent is required by law. You can also opt out at any time.

Two Privacy Elements

But Roku TVs are subject to both a general Roku privacy policy, plus some elements that directly relate to the More Ways to Watch feature on Roku TVs. So while Roku TV users can opt out of the More Ways to Watch feature, you can't opt out of the more general privacy policy. By using a Roku TV, you are agreeing to its privacy policy.

That might be a concern for some. We decided to read through all of Roku's privacy policies, and it gives the company a lot of latitude about what information it collects and how it's shared.

For example, it states that third parties who provide analytic services to Roku may collect personally identifiable information, including, "IP address, access times, browser type and language, device type, device identifiers and Wi-Fi information."

It also says other third parties, "including channel providers, advertisers and ad-related services," may also automatically collect "personally identifiable information about your online activities over time and across different websites, devices, online channels and applications when you use our services." That info can be used for both advertising and analytics.

In addition, the policy states that some third parties "help us and others" track your activities across browsers and devices you, and your household, use "for retargeting, cross-device advertising, analytics, and measurement purposes."

We reached out to Roku for a comment. "Just like when you visit most websites on the Internet, Roku TVs are personalized to bring more relevant content and ads to you," a spokeswoman replied via email. "To do this, we allow third party advertisers to collect limited information associated with a unique identifier that does not directly identify you to those advertisers."

She also said that Roku offers built-in privacy settings for More Ways to Watch "that put you in control of your experience and allow you to reset your unique identifier and indicate your preference to limit use of your data for behaviorally targeted ads."

However, this relates specifically to the More Ways to Watch feature. Under the general privacy policy, Roku and third-party partners do collect personally identifiable information about your Internet activities.

Roku noted that within the Privacy setting, you can reset something called "Roku Identifiers for Advertisers (RIDA), which is used to identify your device. However, a new identifier is then generated, so you'll have to continually revisit this.

In addition, you can choose an option called "Limit Ad Tracking," also in the Privacy setting, which will stop personalized ads from being sent to you, but only by Roku. Roku says it will also send your preference to its channel partners, but can't guarantee they'll honor your preferences.

Almost all smart TVs ask you to trade some degree of privacy in exchange for a more personalized experience. As we do with other TV brands, we highly suggest you visit Roku's general privacy policy and its policy for the use of cookies to see if you feel that trade-off is worth it for Roku TVs and the More Ways to Watch feature.

"There are plenty of consumers who are willing to give up some personal information for cool new features or personalized content and recommendations," says Dallas Harris, policy fellow at Public Knowledge. "But consumers have to know what they're giving up to be able to make an informed decision about whether that trade-off is a worthwhile one."

Other Enhancements

Other improvements being made in OS 7.6, however, are far less contentious. Roku's search now reaches 300 streaming channels, which should make finding content you want to watch a lot easier. And unlike some other devices, it takes an agnostic approach to search, since it doesn't favor one streaming service over another.   

For those who use an antenna to get free over-the-air broadcasts, the update will let you create a list of favorite broadcast channels, so you can browse through only those channels you've added to the list. You can toggle back and forth between the list of favorite channels and an all-channels list any time you need to see the full selection.

There are two new additions to the Live TV Pause feature. Thumbnail images have been added, which makes it a lot easier to locate where you are in a movie or show when you pause, rewind, or fast forward. And Live TV Pause now supports closed captioning for replay, so you can rewind to a portion of a show and get captions for any dialog you might have missed.

One final enhancement offered for all Roku TVs is the ability to assign custom names and icons to each of the TV's inputs, so you can identify them by the device connected to it.

We've been fans of the Roku platform for a while now, thanks to its easy-to-use, well-organized interface and access to a huge amount of streaming content. With this latest OS update, we like that Roku has been very upfront that the new More Ways to Watch feature on Roku TVs uses ACR technology, and makes it easy to opt out of the feature if you so choose.

But if you do intend to use a TV's recommendation feature, we strongly suggest you check out the company's privacy policies to find out exactly what it is doing with the information it collects, and what happens if you decide to opt out of that feature. With Roku TVs, you can turn off the ACR technology, but the company will continue to collect and share data under its general privacy policy. You have to agree to that to use a Roku TV.



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