Whether Vizio is sorry for spying on more than 11 million people while they watched TV in the privacy of their homes is debatable—the company was proud of its ability to capture “highly specific viewing behavior data on a massive scale with great accuracy” in its October 2015 IPO.
But Vizio has agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle charges by the FTC. The company collected data about what people were watching without their consent and then shared the data with advertisers and other companies.
In the FTC’s words, “The data generated when you watch television can reveal a lot about you and your household. So, before a company pulls up a chair next to you and starts taking careful notes on everything you watch (and then shares it with its partners), it should ask if that’s OK with you. VIZIO wasn’t doing that, and the FTC stepped in.”
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Vizio calls its tracking Smart Interactivity, or ACR for automatic content recognition, and it is turned on by default. The company collects “viewing data” about what content is displayed on your TV, how the content is watched—cable, satellite, streaming device or other—the TV shows and commercials viewed, including time, date, channel and whether you viewed them live or at a later time. Vizio also collects unique identifiers about the TV, such as the IP address.
The FTC added, “Vizio collected unique data from each household with a Vizio smart TV that included not only second-by-second viewing information, but also the household’s IP address, nearby access points, ZIP code and other information.” The FTC’s complaint (pdf) also said wired and wireless MAC addresses were captured, as well as “ACR software captures up to 100 billion data points each day from more than 10 million Vizio” TVs; the data was stored indefinitely.
Vizio then shared all the “viewing data” with third-party analytic and media companies and advertisers. The data can be “enhanced.” The FTC explained it as Vizio “appending specific demographic information to the viewing data, such as sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership and household value.” Vizio “sold this information to third parties, who used it for various purposes, including targeting advertising to consumers across devices.”
Vizio has been collecting and sharing customer data since 2014
That has been happening since at least 2014, but even people who owned older Vizio smart TVs got rolled into the spying action, since those TVs received updates in February 2014 that installed ACR tracking.
Of the $2.2 million Vizio is to pay (pdf), $1,500,000 goes to the FTC, $700,000 to the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, and the remaining amount is for legal fees.
Vizio has now noted on its site, “As of 2/06/2017 Viewing Data collection has been disabled on VIA units.”
What to do if you own a Vizio smart TV
If you own a Vizio TV, you might as well go ahead and turn off Smart Interactivity snooping. How to do so depends upon which model of Vizio you have.
For VIA Plus TV interface: After pressing Menu on the TV remote, a Vizio settings box will open on the left side of the screen. Navigate down to System and press OK. Select Reset & Admin. Select the third option down and turn off Smart Interactivity.
For Vizio TVs without VIA Plus, most likely older Vizio smart TVs: The company said to press Menu, select Settings, highlight Smart Interactivity and then press the right arrow to disable the setting.