TV Secretly Collects Your Viewing Info

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Sometimes smart televisions can be too smart.

One day a British IT consultant, Jason Huntley, noticed advertising as he turned on his LG television set -- not ads during the shows or YouTube videos, but on the home screen, before he’d even started watching anything.

Like a lot of TVs made in the last few years, Huntley’s had Internet access for streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu. But, according to the account Huntley posted on his blog, his TV was sending information about what he watched to a Web address that had no associated page. If he typed the URL into a browser he got a ’404′ error.

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In the TV settings, Huntley found the option “Collection of Viewing Info” and it was set to “ON.” He tried turning it off, but that didn’t seem to work; he looked at the traffic from the TV and it appeared unchanged. He also noticed something even more disturbing – the TV was gathering file names from his external USB hard drive. “My wife was shocked to see our children’s names being transmitted in the name of a Christmas video file that we had watched from USB,” he wrote on his blog.

As an experiment, he put a file on a USB thumb drive and plugged it into the TV. Sure enough, the file name showed up in the outgoing traffic. But as Huntley points out in his blog that doesn’t mean anything; setting up a server to receive the information is easy to do.

Huntley isn’t the only one who noticed this. The blog Ramblings by Mark Renney, of the Web design company WubbleYou wrote about what his TV was doing as well, and documented that the TV was logging filenames from the shared drives on his home network.

As the BBC notes, this activity could put LG in breach of UK law. Privacy protections in the European Union are stronger in some ways than in the U.S. and any data sharing requires informed consent. Since Huntley — nor anyone else, judging by the blog comments — was told about any of this before they bought the televisions (and thus couldn’t refuse the sale) there’s a real possibility that LG has run afoul of the law.

The incident has sparked an investigation by LG Australia. For its part, Engadget reports that LG said it would stop collecting private data, with a firmware update.

In the United States, there’s a bit of a legal minefield too. An LG TV that was in a financial firm or doctor’s office, connected to the same router used to access the Internet, might end up accidentally sending out confidential information depending on how it is set up. This could be a bigger concern for a small office that doesn’t have sophisticated systems with dedicated routers.

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While there are technologies out there designed to personalize the experience of TV-watching – Netflix, famously, perfected suggestions for movie and shows the user might like — most of that is geared to a specific service (like Netflix) as opposed to generalized viewing habits and random files from your hard drive.

If you own a recent model LG TV, check the settings and see if there’s one like that Huntley discovered, and sound off in the comments if you find anything similar. It might be worth checking out other big TV makers as well.

Credit: Screen grab from LG TV, originally by Jason Huntley