Smart TV Security: What You Need to Know

Protect yourself against privacy and security issues

Smart TVs connect to the internet, let you install apps, stream video from services like Netflix and Hulu, run games, and use a web browser. They may even include voice control and webcam features. But this internet focus has a darker side, leaving Smart TVs vulnerable to privacy intrusions, security risks, and hacking.

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

Photo of an old TV with an eye filling up the screen
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Smart TV Privacy and Security Issues

Smart TVs present both privacy and security risks. Privacy issues include your personal data and habits being monitored and sold, while security concerns involve viruses and hackers.

Privacy Issues to Be Aware of With Smart TVs

Many Smart TVs feature a technology called Automatic Content Recognition (ACR), which essentially tracks what you watch and then sells that data to advertisers.

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

Many people are unaware of this feature, which has led to consumer privacy issues. The FTC even fined TV maker Vizio $2.2 million in 2017, and lawmakers asked the FTC to investigate the practice.

Consumers do get some benefits from ACR, for example, they're served more relevant ads. Still, this may be a feature you want to disable.

Consumer Reports details 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 very different from what's occurring on smartphones and computers. These devices collect data about your habits to target more useful ads, and your data is often resold to information brokers. In almost all cases, this data is anonymized (not associated with your name or other personally identifying information).

While you can block ads and limit ad tracking on your computer and smartphone, these options are less available on Smart TVs, but there are some things you can do (see below).

Smart TV Security Issues

While privacy issues may be worrisome, they don't really affect you on a day-to-day basis. Security issues, however, have more serious implications.

Are Smart TVs Vulnerable to Viruses?

There is very little evidence of viruses targeting TVs, but there have been a few unusual situations of malware infestation, usually done on purpose.

At one point, electronics giant Samsung advised users via a tweet to run a virus scanner on their Smart TVs. This advice was met with derision, and Samsung later deleted the tweet.

Still, it's not out of the realm of possibility that hackers could someday figure out a way to gain access to credit card information stored via TV apps or a web browser.

Microphone and Camera Create 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 invite security concerns.

In the wrong hands, the microphone and webcam 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, just as an attacker might be able to access your webcam and monitor you, a Smart TV camera is, at least in theory, open to the same kind of attack.

Smart TV Features Risks vs. Benefits

Because of inherent privacy and security concerns, why do Smart TVs even have microphones, webcams, and internet access? The answer is, because consumers want these features, just as they do on computers and other internet-connected devices.

With computers, smartphones, and even pet cams, the trade-off for advanced features is the risk they pose. With Smart TVs, consumers want streaming options, apps, and web browsing, all of which require internet access, which inherently poses potential risks.

Smart TVs have reasonable prices, making them attractive to consumers. According to one Vizio executive, manufacturers make money selling data collected via ACR and other tools, keeping the price of the actual devices lower. Of course, many users don't know this is what they're giving up to get those low prices.

Are Streaming Devices Safer Than Smart TVs?

If you're wondering whether streaming devices like Apple TV, Roku, or Chromecast are safer than Smart TVs, the answer is, well, maybe. Apple TV is very privacy-focused, but even Apple tracks what you watch to make recommendations.

On the other hand, Android TV-based set-top boxes have to deal with Android's inherent security flaws, and even Roku devices have been found to be vulnerable to security issues in the past. So, while these devices can help limit some risk, they're not a perfect answer.

How to Deal With Smart TV Security and Privacy Issues

Ready to take action to protect your privacy and security from potential 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 privacy and security risks. Since these threats are all internet-related, not connecting a Smart TV to the internet thwarts any trouble. 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 choices. Select 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

Updating your TV's OS may take some effort, 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.

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 with strong security. Make sure to put a strong 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.