TECH
02/07/2017 01:39 am ET

Vizio To Pay Millions After Secretly Spying On Customers, Selling Viewer Data

"Consumers didn’t know that while they were watching their TVs, Vizio was watching them."

Vizio has agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle a lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission after the television manufacturer was caught gathering customer data without permission for years.

According to a complaint filed by the FTC and the attorney general of New Jersey, Vizio began making TVs in 2014 that automatically tracked what people were watching. Older devices were retrofitted remotely through software updates, and all of the data was gathered without telling consumers and without their consent. 

Vizio eventually accumulated “as many as 100 billion data points a day from millions of TVs,” which it then sold to advertisers.

“Consumers didn’t know that while they were watching their TVs, Vizio was watching them,” the FTC wrote in a blog post following the settlement.

The FTC detailed how the electronics giant used hidden tracking software to spy on its customers:

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.

...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.

Aside from the monetary penalty, Vizio must also stop the tracking, delete most of the data it collected before March 1, 2016 and require consumers to give consent before collecting their information.

The company released a statement following the settlement announcement, saying it “never paired viewing data with personally identifiable information such as name or contact information.”

“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,” Jerry Huang, the general counsel for the company, wrote.

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