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How much does your TV know about you? That’s one of the questions we asked in 2018 when Consumer Reports undertook an analysis of smart TV privacy and security involving several major TV brands: LG, Samsung, Sony, TCL—which use the Roku TV smart TV platform—and Vizio.
Smart TVs are sets that connect to the internet, making it easy to stream videos from services such as Netflix. Our investigation found that all smart TVs can collect and share significant amounts of personal data about their viewers. And so can the dozens—or even hundreds—of third-party apps that work with the platforms.
These concerns are receiving lots of media attention this holiday shopping season, because an FBI office in Oregon issued a warning saying that some smart TVs are vulnerable to hacking, and that a number of TVs have video cameras built into them.
But the FBI statement covers much of the same ground that we reported previously, and some of the concerns it raises have already been resolved.
Built-in cameras, for instance, have largely been eliminated from new televisions. Consumer Reports' labs haven't seen one in any of the hundreds of new TVs we've tested in the past two years.
And some security problems that Consumer Reports found and reported on in 2018 were addressed. Samsung, for instance, fixed a vulnerability that could let hackers take control of your TV after we contacted the company about the problem.
But privacy concerns remain. In a recent study, researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London looked at smart TVs and other internet-connected devices and found that many of them sent data to Amazon, Facebook, and Doubleclick, Google's advertising business. Nearly all the TVs sent data to Netflix even if the app wasn't installed or the owner hadn't activated it.
Another study, by researchers at Princeton and the University of Chicago, looked not at TVs but at two popular set-top streaming devices from Roku and Amazon Fire TV. More than 2,000 channels are offered, and the researchers found trackers on 69 percent of Roku channels and 89 percent of Amazon Fire TV channels. The numbers are likely to be the same for smart TVs that have Roku's and Amazon's platforms built in.
Below, we'll tell you how to limit the amount of data that's being collected. But first you have to understand what kind of data you're giving up when you have a modern TV.
ACR: Automatic Content Recognition
A technology called automatic content recognition, or ACR, attempts to identify every show you play—including those you get via cable, over-the-air broadcasts, streaming services, and even DVDs and Blu-ray discs. The data is transmitted to the TV maker, one of its business partners, or both.
ACR helps the TV recommend other shows you might want to watch. But the data can also used for targeting ads to you and your family, and for other marketing purposes. You can’t easily review or delete this data later.
We first reported on ACR in 2015. The technology was in the news in 2017 when Vizio got in trouble with federal and state regulators for collecting such data without users’ knowledge or consent. The company eventually paid $2.2 million to settle cases with the Federal Trade Commission and the state of New Jersey. This summer a federal court approved a $17 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit stemming from Vizio's data collection.
Companies need your permission before collecting viewing data. You have the opportunity to decline as you set up a new TV, but you'll need to read each screen carefully; you can't just click “okay” to all the privacy policies and user agreements.
It can be even trickier if you’ve already been using the TV and now want to turn off ACR. The settings are often hard to find. Below are instructions for the major smart TV platforms, covering sets from LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio; Roku sets from brands such as Hisense and TCL; and Amazon Fire TV Edition sets from Toshiba and Insignia.
Even if you turn off ACR, your smart TV will continue to collect information for its manufacturer, possibly including your location, what apps you open, and more. The only way to prevent that is to avoid connecting to the internet, which means ceasing to use it as a smart TV.
Shut Off ACR on Amazon Fire TV Edition TVs
The Amazon Fire TV Edition platform is built into several models from Insignia and Toshiba that are sold through Amazon and Best Buy. Unlike other companies with smart TV platforms, Amazon says that it doesn't use ACR technology to track all the shows you watch, and that it doesn't collect data through a cable set-top box or any other non-Amazon device connected to TVs.
However, the system does collect information on programs you watch using an antenna and through streaming apps, such as Netflix, that are available through the Fire TV platform. (Of course, if you watch anything from Amazon Prime video, the company also knows those details.)
To turn off programming data collection, go to Settings, then Preferences, and scroll to the Right to Privacy Settings. Turn off the setting labeled Disable Collect App and Over-the-Air Usage Data.
In the same menu, you can also turn off Interest-Based Ads, which will affect not just your TV but also other Amazon devices. You'll still see ads—on the Fire TV Edition television, other Amazon devices and websites, and related third-party apps—but they won't be personalized.
We used a 2019 Toshiba to compile these directions, but the settings should be identical on all Amazon Fire TVs. On 2018 models, the settings appear under Applications rather than Preferences.
Shut Off ACR on LG TVs
Almost all LG smart TVs now use the company’s webOS platform.
To control your set's data collection on 2019 sets, use the Settings button on the remote control, then scroll down to All Settings at the bottom of the list. (On 2018 models, you can access Settings from the home screen.) Click General. Scroll down to get to two settings: About This TV and Additional Settings.
You can select All or opt out of each agreement individually.
If you opt out of Viewing Information, you may lose access to some smart TV features, including program recommendations. This will also disable LG Channels—previously called Channel Plus—which provides dozens of free streaming channels from a company called Xumo. There's also a trade-off with Voice Information. Turn it off and you lose the ability to control certain aspects of the TV using voice commands.
LG's ACR technology, called Live Plus, is controlled by the Live Plus User Agreement. LG says Live Plus is required if you want to access certain interactive services, but we don't think you'll miss anything by turning it off.
Shut Off ACR on Roku TVs
Close to a dozen TV brands now use the Roku TV platform, including Element, Hisense, Hitachi, Insignia, JVC, Philips, RCA, Sanyo, Sharp, TCL, and Westinghouse. We checked the Roku TV platform on both TCL and Hisense sets; the settings were laid out identically.
To turn off ACR, press the Home button on the remote, then look for Settings. Scroll down until you see Privacy, click on that, then look for Smart TV experience, as shown in the photo above.
You can then uncheck Use Information for TV Inputs, which will disable the TV’s ACR technology. This will limit the tracking of programs you receive via an antenna or any other devices connected to the TV, but Roku may still collect and share data about the apps you use.
"ACR does not apply to streaming channels on Roku," a spokeswoman told us. "Opting out of ACR does not affect collection of information about the use of Roku streaming channels."
Under Advertising, you can also choose to limit ad tracking. You may still see ads—which could appear on Roku services or third-party channels—but they shouldn't be personalized.
Shut Off ACR on Samsung TVs
On newer Samsung smart TV models, including 2019 sets, click the Settings icon in the main menu, look for Support, then scroll down to Terms & Policies.
There, you’ll see several options, including Viewing Information Services, Interest-Based Advertising, and Voice Recognition Services. Turn off Viewing Information Services to prevent the TV from sending ACR data to Samsung.
Turning off Voice Recognition Services stops the TV from collecting voice data, such as the searches you make, the apps you use, and the websites you visit. But there's a trade-off: You won't be able to perform searches or control the TV using voice commands.
Shutting down Interest-Based Ads just means you'll get generic rather than personalized ads.
On older Samsung smart TVs, the ACR controls are found under the Smart Hub menu. Look for the icon for Settings, click on Support, and find the submenu titled Terms & Policy.
In that submenu, look for SyncPlus and Marketing, and you’ll find an option to disable SyncPlus. You can also turn off Voice Recognition Services, which will disable voice commands.
Shut Off ACR on Sony TVs
This year we've noticed that while Samba TV is on a majority of the Sony TVs we've tested, it's missing from the company's upper-tier sets.
"On certain models that do not launch with the Samba TV service on the Sony TVs, the Samba TV service may be added to the Sony TV later by software update," a company spokesperson told us via email. "If the Samba TV service is later added by a software update, the user [will be] prompted with the option to opt in or opt out of the Samba service."
To disable Samba TV on 2019 Sony sets with Samba TV, go to Settings, then System Preferences. Samba TV is also accessible from the home screen by clicking on the Settings icon at the top right of the screen, then scrolling down to Initial Setup and moving past the Bravia policy page.
With previous-year models, go to the Home menu > Settings > Initial Setup. Look for the screen for the Sony Bravia policy, and agree to that if you want to use the smart TV features. Then proceed through the next couple of screens until you get to the Samba TV user agreement.
You also get to the TV's privacy settings by pushing the help button at the bottom of the remote control.
Shut Off ACR on Vizio TVs
Older Vizio models, plus just a few of Vizio’s newer sets, use a platform called Vizio Internet Apps (VIA) rather than SmartCast. Vizio says that as of 2017, Viewing Data collection was turned off on these sets. To check, start with the System setting, go to Reset & Admin, and highlight Smart Interactivity, the older name for Viewing Data. Press the right arrow to disable ACR.
How Targeted Ads Work
Do you often see online ads that relate to your likes and hobbies? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Thomas Germain explains to host Jack Rico what targeted ads are and how they work.
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- Smart TVs collect data about what you watch with a technology called automatic content recognition, or ACR.
- You can't stop all data collection without disconnecting the set from the internet, but you can turn off ACR.
- Each smart TV company uses a different name for ACR, and the controls can be hard to find. But CR has directions below.
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