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Your smart TV tracks what you watch. Here's how to change the privacy settings

TVs and streamers from Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung and more all bury their privacy settings. Take control of yours.

© Provided by CNET   Smart TVs are great, their privacy settings though could use some work. Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

By Eli Blumenthal, CNET

So you just got a new smart TV, or maybe a Roku or Fire TV  streamer, over the Black Friday weekend or another holiday sale. Congrats! Whether it was a discounted doorbuster or a fancy new OLED, the holiday season is a great time to upgrade your big screen.

One thing you might want to consider about any new TV, just like a phone or smart home device, is how it handles your privacy. In many ways, the content you watch on the big screen is watching you back. While most modern TV's aren't tracking you with physical cameras, their smart TV software platforms are often following what you're doing from behind the scenes.

From Amazon and Roku to Samsung , LG and Vizio , all major smart platforms and TVs are capturing your viewing data. Software and hardware makers use it to "improve" the products they offer, for example by tailoring show recommendations and the ads they show you. While potentially frustrating, the ability to show ads helps in keeping costs down when buying a new TV or streaming stick.

One tool for tracking is called Automatic Content Recognition, which is software that recognizes the images on your TV. ACR works regardless of whether the images come through an app or an HDMI  port like a cable box, Xbox or PlayStation. The good news is that you can turn it off.

To find out how, we checked out all of the major TV makers' 2019 smart TV systems as well as dedicated streamers from Amazon, Roku and Nvidia (which uses Google ). Here's what we found and what you can do about it. Just click the link below to jump to your device. 

  • Amazon Fire TV smart TVs and streamers
  • Google Android TV streame
  • Roku smart TVs and streamers
  • LG smart TVs (web OS)
  • Samsung smart TVs (Tizen)
  • Sony smart TVs (Android TV)
  • Vizio smart TVs (SmartCast)

What TV makes it easiest to control your privacy ? Roku.

Of all of the TVs and streamers we looked at, Roku makes it easiest to opt out of viewing data collection. The menus use plain English to explain their terms of service and the privacy controls are easy to find: There's a dedicated "Privacy" section in the Settings menu that consists of three simple boxes. 

The worst operator in our tests was Vizio. Its privacy controls were so complicated that in our initial hunt for the setting we had to reset our TV to factory settings to make sure that the right things were unchecked.

Those two represent the extremes among the systems we tested. Below you'll find them all along with step-by-step instructions for taking control of your data.


Amazon Fire TV

© Provided by CNET   Amazon has a few privacy menus, but they are easy to find and control. Amazon

Amazon says it uses data to help operate devices, improve them and troubleshoot problems as well as "assess customer engagement, identify potential quality issues, analyze our business, and customize marketing offers" including ads. The exact data it captures varies by apps and services.

Here's how you can take back control. All settings can be found by going to "Settings," then "Preferences" then "Privacy Settings." 

  • Choose "Device Usage Data" and this setting off.
  • Go to "App Usage Data" and turn this setting off.
  • Select "Internet-based Ads" and turn this setting off.
  • On some Fire TV television sets Amazon will also capture data from what you're watching with an antenna. For those TVs, find "Over-the-air data" and turn it off.

Google Android TV

Google has one privacy policy across the company's products which details the data it collects to sell ads or recommend other content like YouTube videos.

The data collected includes terms you search for, videos you watch, views and interactions with content and ads, voice and audio information when you use audio features, purchase activity, people with whom you communicate or share content, activity on third-party sites and apps that use our services.

Google says that Android TV as a platform does not perform ACR or monitor what specific content users are watching.

Here's how to control data on Android TV device like the Nvidia Shield we tested.

  • Head to Settings, scroll down to a section labeled "Personal," click "usage and diagnostics" and make sure that tab is switched to off.
  • To manage other data Google has on you, such as YouTube and search histories and web and activity data, head to myactivity.google.com.

Roku

© Provided by CNET   With a straightforward privacy menu, Roku makes it easy to limit ads and control the Smart TV aspects on your television. Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku's privacy policy states that the company will collect "your search history, search results, audio information when you use voice-enabled features, channels you access (including usage statistics such as what channels you access, the time you access them, and how long you spend viewing them), interactions with content and advertisements, and settings and preferences."

Roku says that while it shares some data with advertisers, but it does "not share your viewing data with them."

Here's what you need to do to limit or disable some of the tracking.

  • From the main Roku menu, open "Settings" and head to "Privacy."
  • For "Advertising," make sure that the box "Limit ad tracking" is checked.
  • To disable ACR, scroll to the tab labeled "Smart TV experience" and make sure both options there are unchecked.

This will limit what data Roku collects and disable ACR, though it means that Roku won't be able to make the same recommendations for content.


LG smart TVs (web OS)

© Provided by CNET   LG's user agreement is where you'll be able to opt-out of tracking services and ads. Sarah Tew/CNET

LG is the only manufacturer we contacted that didn't respond to our questions, so we can't confirm what data its system collects. Regardless, here's how to limit it. 

  • In the main "Settings" menu select "General."
  • To turn off content recommendations, head to "AI Service" and uncheck "AI Recommendation," which will stop LG from tracking this usage data.
  • Next head to "About this TV" and choose "User agreements." You will need to agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy, plus Voice Information if you want to use Alexa or Google Assistant.
  • Here you can withdraw your agreement from "Interest-Based Advertisement," "Viewing Information," "Live Plus," which is what LG uses to capture viewing habits with ACR, as well as "LG Channels."
  • Going into "Additional Settings" from that General menu will allow you to also turn off "Cookies," which tracks which web ads have appeared on your TV and makes sure the same ads don't "show up continuously above a certain level."

Samsung Smart TVs (Tizen)

Samsung Smart TVs use ACR when providing recommendations on what to watch or to give more relevant ads. In addition to ACR, the company will also collect status information about the TV when diagnosing problems or to improve products. 

Opting out of what is known as "Viewing Information Services" should disable the ACR capture. Here's how you can do that.

  • Open "Settings," select "Support" and head to "Terms & Policy."
  • Choose "Viewing Information Services" and uncheck the "I agree" to turn off ACR.
  • Head to "Interest-Based Advertisements Service Privacy Notice" and uncheck "Enable to make the content and advertising on Smart TV more interactive" to turn off personalized ads.

Note that for services like voice control through Bixby, you will need to agree Samsung's Voice Recognition Service Privacy Notice.


Sony smart TVs (Android TV)

© Provided by CNET   Sony's privacy settings in Android TV let you opt-out. Sarah Tew/CNET

We used a Sony Bravia Android TV in our test, but the experience should be comparable to other Android TV devices.

  • Head to Settings and scroll down to a tab labeled "Initial setup."
  • Scroll through the privacy policy, which outlines exactly what Google (and in this case, Sony) collects. You'll then be prompted with a series of checkboxes that will allow you to opt-out of advertisements, program recommendations and using your data for product improvements.
  • Unchecking them all and clicking proceed should stop them from collecting your information.

Vizio smart TVs (SmartCast)

© Provided by CNET   Vizio's privacy controls are harder to find; for best results you should reset your TV. Sarah Tew/CNET

Vizio says that the viewing data it collects is "device-level information about what's playing on a Vizio Smart TV, such as the shows, movies, networks, and ads" and that the data is "never linked with identifying information like names and contact information."

The company says that the data it collects is "licensed to media companies, advertisers, and measurement companies." Unfortunately, Vizio makes it really hard to check or opt-out of this tracking on its recent SmartCast TVs. Here's how.

  • Go into "Settings" by tapping "Menu" on the remote.
  • Choose "System" followed by "Reset & Admin."
  • Head down to "Viewing Data" and make sure that toggle is set to Off. This will disable ACR collection and stop Vizio from sharing what you're doing with third parties.

Unfortunately, Vizio says that even if Viewing Data is disabled it will still collect information when "consumers use SmartCast Home" on new models or "Smart Interactivity" on older TVs. SmartCast Home is Vizio's platform for streaming apps.

"Activity Data includes device-level information and clicks and impressions, which are collected in order to support and maintain the SmartCast experience as well as continuously improve and add value to VIZIO products, including creating new services, or providing recommendations," the company told CNET adding that the data collected here "is not licensed to third parties."

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Technology News: Your smart TV tracks what you watch. Here's how to change the privacy settings
Your smart TV tracks what you watch. Here's how to change the privacy settings
TVs and streamers from Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung and more all bury their privacy settings. Take control of yours.
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