11 million smart TVs allegedly used to snoop on viewers
As technology evolves, it spawns a multitude of new ethical dilemmas. But the notion that your smart device could spy on you in the ostensible privacy of your own home, reporting back to its manufacturer without your permission, is a concept that should be confined to the dystopian realms of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, not one we should endure in real life.
In an alarming revelation, Vizio, a privately held US company, has settled charges that accused it of spying on its viewers, amassing their data and then selling it on. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) disclosed its belief that the company had used a staggering 11 million televisions to conduct the illicit operation. Information about users’ demographics, geographical locations and viewing preferences were apparently sold without consent onto third parties. Under the terms of the agreement, Vizio neither confirmed nor denied malpractice.
Lending bureaucratic authority to this view was Kevin Moriarty, a lawyer for the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, proclaiming in a blog post: “Before a company pulls up a chair next to you and starts taking careful notes on everything that you watch (and then shares it with its partners), it should ask if that’s OK with you.” He went on to add, stridently, that “Vizio wasn’t doing that, and the FTC stepped in.”
And while it’s not exactly a household name over here, the pervasiveness of Vizio is substantial. The firm is the most popular TV maker in the US, dominating a hefty 20% of the market, and producing around one in five TVs sold in the country. Anyone with the faintest conception of American consumer culture will know that that’s a hell of a lot of televisions.
Chillingly, the invasive undertakings were detailed over the course of the lawsuit, with Vizio purportedly having spied on its viewers to capture “second-by-second information” about viewing habits. Data was extracted from an array of multimedia devices, from DVDs to over-the-air broadcasts and streaming devices. Cable and broadband were also mined for information. Further accusations were levied against Vizio for selling data relating to customers’ gender, age and income to advertising firms.
In a strange turn of events, Vizio’s lawyers attempted to project onto the company an altogether more virtuous identity, that of the trailblazing vigilante, with general counsel Jerry Huang proclaiming: “Today, the FTC has made clear that all smart-TV makers should get people’s consent before collecting and sharing television-viewing information, and Vizio now is leading the way.”
Of course. Because how else would one navigate such a complex moral judgement without federal intervention? Not a basic comprehension of right and wrong, that’s for sure…