The FBI warns that if you bought a new Smart TV on Black Friday or Cyber Monday you might be under surveillance. For real.
Ever get that feeling that someone's watching you? Ever get that feeling sitting at home, doing (or wearing) who knows what? With apologies to Boston (the band), it just might be More Than a Feeling.
Here's how it could happen. Smart TVs connect to the internet and many of them have a camera and a microphone. Internet, camera, microphone. What could go wrong? The companies that manufacture Smart TVs aren't focused on security; they're supposed to be more concerned about providing you with a great high-definition picture. (More on that supposition later.) That means a hacker who can't get past your protected laptop can possibly move right in to your Smart TV. That gives the hacker access to your router in addition to the camera and microphone. Hence the feeling someone's watching you. And listening to you. Suddenly, the movie I Know What You Did Last Summer takes on a whole new meaning.
About that great picture supposition. The manufacturers aren't always playing fair either. In fact, they're so upfront about their surveillance of your Smart TV that they get YOU to allow them to do it. Do you remember opting-in for ACR when you set up your Smart TV? You probably don't; very few people remember the screen and even less opt-out.
Here's The TV Surveillance Story, Keep In Mind All Of This Is True
Ten years ago, when Smart TVs were first manufactured, an engineer at Vizio realized these televisions had an internet connection and apps. He then figured out that while you watch your TV, your TV can watch you back. That's where Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) comes into play. There are roughly 24 bundles of pixels scattered around your Smart TV screen. Let's put that into perspective. If you own a 65" UHD 4K Smart TV, your screen has 8.3 million pixels. So, 24 bundles of pixels aren't going to stand out. These 24 bundles are what provides the ACR. Every second these bundles create a string of numbers that report back to the manufacturer (and who knows who else) what you're watching. And "what you're watching" includes network TV, DVDs, streaming, cable, satellite...everything.
Except Netflix, because Netflix told the manufacturers they didn't want their app tracked. This has been happening for a decade. There have been lawsuits, settlements, more lawsuits. Just remember this: when you set up your Smart TV, when you get to the Automatic Content Recognition screen, decline it. That won't impact how your Smart TV works, other then to stop telling the manufacturer what you're watching.
Back to the hackers. More specifically, the CIA. Remember the WikiLeaks dump of secret US government information in 2013? That's the dump that turned Edward Snowden into a hero or villain, depending upon your point of view. That dump contained details of CIA plans to use Smart TVs to conduct surveillance throughout the country. Those plans were reportedly dropped.
Now, six years later, the FBI is warning consumers that their Smart TVs can provide the so-called "bad actors" a path to the consumer's router which can then lead them into the consumer's computers. Plus, the hackers can watch and listen to you while you're watching your Smart TV.
Merry Christmas TV Shoppers
Fortunately, you can have your Christmas Smart TV and watch it, too (without it watching you). Consumer Reports (https://www.consumerreports.org/privacy/how-to-turn-off-smart-tv-snooping-features/) will tell you how to dumb down your Smart TV. Maybe you should add them to your Christmas Card list.