Monday, 25 November 2013

Are you watching your tv or is your tv watching you?

Smart TVs are devices which combine the features of a traditional TV screens with interactive media. Basically, they allow their owners to not only watch content, but also to store it and browse among different sources, using local networks as well as- most importantly for our story- accessing the internet.

A few days ago, the reputed website Ars technica first reported that a blogger had "offered evidence that his Internet-connected television has been transmitting detailed information about his family's viewing habits, including the times and channels they watch and even the names of computer video files stored on connected USB drives." 

Soon, a second user provided similar evidence. The revelations apparently prompted a reaction from the producer, LG, which released a statement whose most important passage goes as follows:

"Information such as channel, TV platform, broadcast source, etc. that is collected by certain LG Smart TVs is not personal but viewing information. This information is collected as part of the Smart TV platform to deliver more relevant advertisements and to offer recommendations to viewers based on what other LG Smart TV owners are watching. We have verified that even when this function is turned off by the viewers, it continues to transmit viewing information although the data is not retained by the server. A firmware update is being prepared for immediate rollout that will correct this problem on all affected LG Smart TVs so when this feature is disabled, no data will be transmitted."

The issue might remain slightly controversial even once the disabling function is brought to work: should the consumer actually be expected to know that, unless she actively prevents it, her TV will send information about her habits to its producer (not only LG)? Or should the default be that the no information can be collected, unless the consumer explicitly allows it? Also, the distinction between "viewing" and "personal" information does not mean automatically that companies should feel free to collect it without further ado.

In the lengthy discussion which has so far accompanied the political process of revising the EU privacy rules, much of the attention has been concentrated on websites, e-commerce and so on. What about this? It is not easy to find the right approach when dealing with a dimension which evolves so rapidly as that of technology & privacy, but this is no reason to simply give up...

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