Smart TV Security: What You Need to Know

Protect yourself against privacy and security issues

Photo of an old TV with an eye filling up the screen.

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Smart TVs connect to the internet, let you install apps, stream video from services like Netflix and Hulu, run games, have a web browser, and may include features like voice control and webcams. But in a world where most of our entertainment is streamed over the internet, Smart TVs have a darker side to that involves privacy concerns, security risks, the potential for hacking, and much more.

Whether you’re thinking about buying a Smart TV, or already have one, here are the Smart TV security and privacy issues you need to be aware of, plus tips for how you can deal with them.

Smart TV Privacy Issues

There are two categories of risk that Smart TVs can pose to users: privacy issues and security issues. Privacy issues involve things like having your habits monitored and your personal data sold, while security issues include viruses and hackers. Since the privacy issues involved with Smart TVs are often more surprising to people, let's start with those.

Smart TVs Track What You Watch with Automatic Content Recognition (ACR)

What if I told you that your TV "watches" everything you watch, tracks it, and then sells that data to advertisers? Would it bother you? Well, that's what a lot of Smart TVs do, using a technology called Automatic Content Recognition (ACR).

ACR can essentially "see" everything that is displayed on your Smart TV screen, from TV shows to games to apps, and keep a record of it. This data is sold to advertisers and other companies to help target ads, viewing recommendations, and other services to you.

Many people don't know this "feature" is present in most smart TVs, a revelation that led Vizio to be fined US$2.2 million in 2017 and to U.S. lawmakers asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the practice.

While users do get some benefit from ACR — more relevant ads, for one thing — you may prefer to disable it. The New York Times has a good article that covers how to disable ACR on a range of Smart TVs.

Privacy Issues Are Tied to Ads, Data Collection

While ACR and similar monitoring technologies may seem creepy, they're ultimately not that different from what happens on smartphones and computers. All of these devices collect data about your habits to better target ads to you and to resell your data to information brokers. In almost all cases, this data is anonymized (that is, it's not associated with your name or other personally identifying information).

Still, while you may expect that to happen on your computer, you probably don't expect it on your TV. One key difference is that you can block ads and limit ad tracking on your computer and smartphone. Those options are less available on Smart TVs, but we'll cover some actions you can take at the end of this article.

Smart TV Security Issues

While privacy issues may be worrisome or feel creepy, they may not really affect you on a day-to-day basis. That's not necessarily true of the security issues facing Smart TVs. Those could have much more serious implications.

Are Smart TV Vulnerable to Viruses?

Believe it or not, but Smart TVs can get viruses. Viruses targeting TVs are far from common occurrences or major threats, but who even wants to worry about that?

Samsung has advised users in the past that they should regularly run the built-in McAfee virus scanner on their Smart TVs. The company later deleted the tweet that had the advice in it, but asking users to run their own scans seems like too much trouble. It would be great to see Samsung make these scans automatic.

While TV viruses are rare now, that could change in the future — and that could become a real problem. If a virus interferes with the functioning of your TV, that's annoying but not major. But if you have a credit card on file to rent movies or buy games, or access financial or medical data through TV apps or a web browser, having a virus on your TV could suddenly become much more serious.

Microphone and Camera Can Turn a Smart TV Into a Surveillance Device

Many Smart TVs have voice features for search and controlling the TV, and cameras for video chat and games. These options offer up fun, new ways to use the TV, but they also open security concerns.

In the wrong hands, the microphone and web camera on your Smart TV could be turned into surveillance devices. For example, according to Wikileaks, the CIA created a tool called "Weeping Angel" that could turn some Smart TV microphones into a remote listening device. And, in the same way an attacker might be able to access your web cam to monitor you, a Smart TV camera is, at least in theory, open to the same kind of attack.

Why Smart TVs Work This Way

After reading about these privacy and security concerns, you may be wondering why any smart, responsible TV manufacturer would create products with these issues. The reason is that consumers prefer it this way. Well, not exactly this way, but they want what TVs working this way gives them.

First off, consumers want all of the streaming options, apps, and web browsing that Smart TVs offer. There's simply more risk inherent in having a computer (which is what a Smart TV basically is) connected to the internet than one that isn't connected. This is true for all internet devices, even pet cams. The trade-off for the features is the risk.

The other trade-off consumers are making is around price. Smart TVs actually cost less than traditional TVs, according to one Vizio executive, because manufacturers can make money by selling the data collected by ACR and other tools.

The TV manufacturing business has tight profit margins and consumers want the lowest prices for their preferred TVs (of course!). To get those low costs while also making the profit they need, TV makers have to find other revenue sources. That's where collecting and selling user data comes in.

Of course, many users don't know this is what they're giving up to get those low prices.

Wondering whether streaming devices like the Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast are safer than Smart TVs? Maybe. Apple TV is much more secure and privacy-focused, but even Apple tracks what you watch to make recommendations. Android TV-based set-top boxes have the many security flaws inherent to Android, and Roku devices have been found to be vulnerable to security issues in the past. These devices can help limit some risk, but they can't eliminate it.

How to Deal With Smart TV Security and Privacy Issues

Ready to take action to protect your privacy and security from Smart TV threats? Here are some suggestions:

  • Don't connect your Smart TV to the internet. This is the only sure-fire, foolproof way to prevent these risks. Since they're all internet-related, not connecting to a Smart TV to the internet thwarts them. But it also removes all of the "smart" features most people want, so what good is that?
  • Choose the most restrictive options during setup. When setting up your TV, you may be given options to enable features, opt into data sharing and connectivity, and similar options. Pick the most restrictive options to limit your privacy exposure.
  • Learn your TV's settings. TV operating systems aren't as refined and user friendly as computer or phone OSes, but do your best. The better you understand what settings your TV offers, the more you can do to protect yourself.
  • Update your TV's operating system regularly. This is another thing that's more work on a TV than on other devices, but it's still important. New OS versions will often contain security fixes, so make sure to update regularly.
  • Cover your TV's camera. Don't plan to use your TV's camera? Cover the lens. Better safe than sorry, after all.
  • Turn off your TV's microphone. If you don't need your TV's voice-activation features, turn off the microphone in your TV's settings.
  • Use strong security on your router. Your Smart TV will be a lot more secure if it's connected to a router that's got strong security. Make sure to put a good password on your home network, use encryption, and take other reasonable security measures. For more in-depth tips on router and home network security, check out 6 Wireless Router Security Features You Should Turn On.

In most cases, the user privacy and security features are disabled by default on Smart TVs. Manufacturers should change this and enable them by default so users are protected even if they don't do anything other than plug in their TVs.