What Vizio was doing behind the TV screen

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Consumers have bought more than 11 million internet-connected Vizio televisions since 2010. But according to a complaint filed by the FTC and the New Jersey Attorney General, consumers didn’t know that while they were watching their TVs, Vizio was watching them. The lawsuit challenges the company’s tracking practices and offers insights into how established consumer protection principles apply to smart technology.

Starting in 2014, Vizio made TVs that automatically tracked what consumers were watching and transmitted that data back to its servers. Vizio even retrofitted older models by installing its tracking software remotely. All of this, the FTC and AG allege, was done without clearly telling consumers or getting their consent.

What did Vizio know about what was going on in the privacy of consumers’ homes? On a second-by-second basis, Vizio collected a selection of pixels on the screen that it matched to a database of TV, movie, and commercial content. What’s more, Vizio identified viewing data from cable or broadband service providers, set-top boxes, streaming devices, DVD players, and over-the-air broadcasts. Add it all up and Vizio captured as many as 100 billion data points each day from millions of TVs.

Vizio then turned that mountain of data into cash by selling consumers’ viewing histories to advertisers and others. And let’s be clear: We’re not talking about summary information about national viewing trends. According to the complaint, Vizio got personal. The company provided consumers’ IP addresses to data aggregators, who then matched the address with an individual consumer or household. Vizio’s contracts with third parties prohibited the re-identification of consumers and households by name, but allowed a host of other personal details – for example, sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education, and home ownership.  And Vizio permitted these companies to track and target its consumers across devices.

That’s what Vizio was up to behind the screen, but what was the company telling consumers? Not much, according to the complaint.

Vizio put its tracking functionality behind a setting called “Smart Interactivity.”  But the FTC and New Jersey AG say that the generic way the company described that feature – for example, “enables program offers and suggestions” – didn’t give consumers the necessary heads-up to know that Vizio was tracking their TV’s every flicker. (Oh, and the “Smart Interactivity” feature didn’t even provide the promised “program offers and suggestions.”)

The complaint alleges that Vizio engaged in unfair trade practices that violated the FTC Act and were unconscionable under New Jersey law. The complaint also alleges that Vizio failed to adequately disclose the nature of its “Smart Interactivity” feature and misled consumers with its generic name and description.

To settle the case, Vizio has agreed to stop unauthorized tracking, to prominently disclose its TV viewing collection practices, and to get consumers’ express consent before collecting and sharing viewing information. In addition, the company must delete most of the data it collected and put a privacy program in place that evaluates Vizio’s practices and its partners. The order also includes a $1.5 million payment to the FTC and an additional civil penalty to New Jersey for a total of $2.2 million.

Here are tips smart companies take from the latest law enforcement action involving smart products, which were also discussed at the FTC’s recent Smart TV workshop.

  • Explain your data collection practices up front.  Tell consumers from the outset about the information you intend to collect. Ditch the tech talk and use easy-to-understand language. Especially when explaining new technologies or data collection people may not expect, transparency can be the key to customer loyalty.
  • Get consumers’ consent before you collect and share highly specific information about their entertainment preferences.  If consumers wouldn’t expect you to be collecting information from them, especially sensitive information, make sure they consent to what you intend to do. The best way to accomplish that is to get their opt-in to the practice – in other words, to express their consent affirmatively.
  • Make it easy for consumers to exercise options.  Would a function called “Smart Interactivity” that “enables program offers and suggestions” clue consumers in that everything they watch is being collected and shared with third parties? We don’t think so. Companies can hardly claim to offer consumers a choice if the tools necessary to exercise that choice are hard to find or hidden behind plain-vanilla descriptors.
  • Established consumer protection principles apply to new technology.  FTC guidance documents like Careful Connections: Building Security in the Internet of Things, .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising, and Start with Security may not have “Smart TV” in the title, but smart businesses look to them for advice on avoiding deceptive or unfair practices.

Comments

We have 3 vizio tv's!!! Why aren't the people being compensated for this invasion of privacy?!

I feel violated...this penalty is paltry..... they should be made to compensate the customer.... buy back our TV's etc... outrageous ......

I hate to say it but it's with your laptop anytime you're hooked up to the internet - every time you use your cell phone - every time you use your credit card - and VIZIO isn't the only manufacturer of smart TV's. We have no privacy - you have to hire someone to clear all the information off the internet or renamed yourself James J Smith - where there's only about 20 million of them to blend into the background.

I bought a Vizio TV in December. It would not allow us to set up the remote unless there was an Internet connection. The TV could not be used at all unless we set up a Vizio account. Now I know why.

Google does this with every search. Google also keeps track of your movements. Put in your address get a picture of your house. The list goes on your credit card and store loyalty cards keep track of what you buy, etc., etc.

Is this a class action law suit and where do i sign up. I have 2 of these tvs

That's wonderful. Not only have I had to put with my piece of garbage Vizio but it has been spying on me too. Had already decided not to ever buy another Vizio and this is just one more reason.

.... where is the class action lawsuit ? I need my money back so I can buy a Samsung instead

So does this mean that since we are not seeing any compensation that we can sue them as individuals, in local or US courts?

Are we going to get any of the 20 million they had to pay ? I have one of their 60" Smart TVs

$2.2 million, not $20 - $20 is what it should have been.

#boycottVizio

How do I file for this? I have a brand new vizeo smart tv we got for Christmas and am horrified some one is watching me and my fsmily. Please let me know how we can get in the lawsuit!!

I purchased my Vizio 32" TV a few years ago online. The thought of Vizio employees watching me in the privacy of my own home makes me sick. How do i get in on this lawsuit?

These are the laws we have. If you want a private right of action or bigger fines, that can only come from Congress...and Congress has no appetite for consumer privacy laws at present.

The fact you can put years into believing in someone and looking up to them with respect and then they bring that in the home to violate them and destroy their morals and values is just the biggest disappointment. Like going to school to be taught how to be a good person for years and then realizing you've been reading from a non-fictional text book. I trusted the Vizio company for over 5 years with what now I jokingly call a marriage just to find out I he was a manipulative actor only worried about making money for himself. If you come across a company like Vizio do not believe their promises and policies.

I was thinking about purchasing a Vizio this month, should I be worried now?

I could care less about the money because I find tearing down a person like that is the main issue. Great, Vizio got rich being a savage! No tears over that. But to rob someone of their self respect any possibility to have hope a good company exists is like a rapist laughing that they mentally ruined the weaker sex.

Hey, I am the one violated! Why is the FTC and New Jersey getting millions? They need to divvy that settlement up and give it to the folks who were unwittingly victimized.

Sorry to tell you folks but the FTC is owned by consumers. So the money is coming back to consumers in the form of a better FTC (and NY AG). How do you think the FTC got here in the first place.

That's it. These guys made untold millions violating peoples' privacy and you collected $2.2 million, none of which the consumer will ever see? Their deliberate corporate wrongdoings are a revenue engine for the federal government and the states, in this case NJ. What incentive is there not to do it again when you profit millions after being caught in the act? Under Trump, you will probably give them money.

#boycottVizio

I own Four Vizio televisions, and at no time did I give anyone consent to monitor mine, or my families viewing habits.
This is a crime, a massive invasion of privacy.
There should by a class action law suit, this company, and all the others out there that take our privacy for granted should be held accountable.

Welcome to Economic Feudalism maturing by the technological empowerment of greed. Ye good people, the Lords of the Manor desire more yet you protest? So they didn't tell you, but do you really read those legal speak multi-page privacy policies...and all those from the "business partners" - didn't think so! So like those who sold Manhattan for $24 of trinkets...joyfully stare in to the screen, never mind whats going on just behind it, for just an economic SURF are you! Now get back to work, make "Mo$$" to spend on our "cool stuff", trusting we Lords to do right by you.The big data market was $122B worldwide in 2015 & expected to grow to $187B by 2019 (Forbes) and you want privacy?. Without the FTC this may have gone unnoticed but they are hopelessly over-matched to be our safeguard. New cars GPS tack us, Xboxone has your phone/your ID, phone apps read your text messages, contacts, location plus can modify/add/delete accounts & USB contents etc... which we surfs have willfully given to the technology Lords. That new phone for cheap I bet sends back a lot more data capture than one 4yrs ago. Unregulated Big Data knows far more about our daily lives than the Government - Vizio a case in point. We must stop being complacent about privacy intrusion, it is an erosion of the freedom many died for. We should all limit, as much as practical, buying "smart" anything until Congress stops these abuses of the ignorant masses for more profits to the few. Otherwise, the day is surely coming when your life will be ruled by big data. Your insurance notes your car's GPS feedback shows you routinely travel to places in faster than the speed limit allows so we added 25% to your premium, your fitness band shows you ate gazillion calories last year but hardly exercised, here's a 30% surcharge on your health insurance, etc. Let's not mention the future being the "Internet of things". If we don't try to keep our privacy we will lose more than the "cool" tech offers us, there will be no alternatives to turn to. I fear for most, life will be more costly in keeping with personalized big data's goal to increase profits in ever creative ways, and for the rest of us it's Economic Feudalism..."As you wish me lord".

I have 2 smart tvs since 2015, but i haven't receive a notification about this settlement,am i entitled to receive any compensation??

I purchased a Vizio TV from Target in March of 2016. It quit working in February 2017. Because it is still under warranty, Vizio sent someone to replace a bulb. Two days later, the TV went out again Now they are going to send me a refurbished TV. Now I see this and wonder what recourse I have for a TV that doesn't work and when it does, illegally collects personal data. I did purchase the extended warranty from Target but that won't go into place until the one year (and now plus 90 days) manufacturers warranty is up. I can't afford to just trash it. Frustrating. Would never buy a Vizio again!

This is a crime, and it's a crime that the Department of Justice targets 13 year olds and other individuals not big corporations for hacking. Accessing a computer without authorization is a five+ year felony. Driving people like Aaron Swartz to suicide for making tax payer funded (grants and tax exemptions) research papers more readily available to the tax payers is crazy and should not have been prosecuted.

We were wondering why our Vizio tv was constantly connecting to our wifi when not in use and attempting to connect to other devices as well. It was odd behavior and i started unplugging the tv whenever i remembered to. Finding this out now just makes me feel so violated.

Compensation is not the issue here. The issue is that no one who works for vizio will go to jail. Our judicial system tends to give a wide berth to 'white collar' crimes. We have a right to privacy, but we DO NOT have a right to arrest those who invade our privacy. (i.e. How many people got arrested in the predatory lending scandal?) Find out who voted, within the corporation, to collect private date and prosecute those individuals. Start with their filed paperwork in the marketing meetings. Study the minutes in the meetings. Interview those within the company who believe in privacy and ask them what is going on. This is not rocket science. A case would not be so difficult to make. Fines may temporarily stop an activity, but those that perpetrated the activity are still in place; looking for other ways to, in this case, to collect data.

Hello, Vizio is still doing this. My TV just self updated and forced a new version of firmware to install. This firmware asks you to "agree" or "disagree" but if you click "disagree" it says "Sorry, acceptance is required" and then reboots the tv. My tv was working great a week ago and now I cant use it unless I am forced to opt in? Plus, there is no way to prevent the TV from updating its firmware and taking away more features

Vizio T.V are so bad...I replaced 2 vizio t.v. within a year(warranty) and still having same problems..And guess what Vizio customer service is saying...Your warranty just ran out and your Vizio T.V is now your problem...WARNING: Don't BUY VIZIO T.V. It will be your problem indeed. I offer them to take the $600 T.V for free and they won't even take it because it's so bad they don't want to inherit the problem I'm having...Such a bad company..They should be ashamed

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