Smart TVs Are Cheaper Than Ever, and It's Because They're Selling Your Data

iStock.com/97
iStock.com/97

Thanks to plummeting retail prices on televisions, it's possible to walk out of a store with a 55-inch or 65-inch display for under $500. These aren't bare-bones models, either. Smart TVs from manufacturers like Vizio and TCL offer cutting-edge 4K resolution and High Dynamic Range (HDR) capability. If you have the right video source from a streaming service or 4K DVD player, the image quality can be staggering.

Depending on the model and manufacturer, some of these budget-friendly televisions achieve their attractive price points by collecting and selling your data.

In a candid interview with the Verge in January 2019, Vizio chief technology officer Bill Baxter illustrated the business model. Baxter explained that the low profit margins of televisions meant that the company was more interested in covering the cost and then seeing revenue from consumers using the television.

"You make a little money here, a little money there," Baxter said. "You sell some movies, you sell some TV shows, you sell some ads, you know. It's not really that different than the Verge website."

Because these televisions are often connected to the internet, they're able to track usage—what kind of content you watch through a built-in streaming app like Roku, your location, and which ads you're paying attention to. Depending on the video service you're using, Vizio can also get a portion of sales from on-demand content like movies.

According to Baxter, Vizio's philosophy is that monetizing hardware in this manner keeps costs down for every consumer, even if they opt out of data collecting. Of course, viewers paying only halfhearted attention to the television's disclaimers during the initial set-up process may not realize the extent of the information they're agreeing to share by default.

Nor has the company always been so transparent. In 2017, Vizio settled a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that alleged they collected data from 10 million sets without the consent of the consumer, including IP addresses. The information was gathered through a feature called Smart Interactivity, which promoted itself as being able to help the consumer find content and customize advertising based on viewing habits. The complaint, filed by the FTC and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, was settled for $2.2 million. Vizio admitted no wrongdoing and said that no viewing data was paired with personal information.

Another data collection service, Samba TV, has relationships with manufacturers like Sony, Sharp, TCL, and Phillips. The consumer is urged to enable the software when a television is first plugged in to get content recommendations. If users opt in, Samba TV tracks virtually everything that appears onscreen, learning what shows viewers are watching, and then works with advertisers to target ads to other devices connected to the internet in the home. (A notable exception is Netflix, which has agreements with manufacturers that prohibit third-party tracking on their service.) In 2018, Samba TV said it was collecting information from 13.5 million televisions in the United States.

The moral? If you own a smart TV, it's probably in your best interests to examine the data acquisition policy and opt out through the menu system. If not, be aware that your television is no longer a passive display. It's watching you.

[h/t Business Insider]

Surprise! Microsoft Admits That People Are Listening In on Your Cortana and Skype Conversations

mabe123/iStock via Getty Images
mabe123/iStock via Getty Images

In a turn of events that, at this point, probably shocks no one, Microsoft has confessed that human contractors have been listening in on some people's private conversations via Skype and Cortana.

Vice first broke the news on the privacy breach earlier this month, after a contractor passed along documents, screenshots, and actual audio files of some conversations. “The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” the contractor, whose name was withheld (for obvious reasons), told Motherboard. Unlike Apple’s recent Siri snafu, these conversations didn’t include potential criminal activity, but they did catch intimate exchanges about weight loss, love, and relationship problems.

Also unlike Apple: Microsoft is not suspending its practices. Instead, the tech monolith has updated its privacy policy to clarify that humans might, in fact, be eavesdropping on you.

“We realized, based on questions raised recently, that we could do a better job of clarifying that humans sometimes review this content,” a Microsoft representative told Vice. Before, the Skype website had mentioned that your content could be analyzed in order to improve the technology, but it never explicitly stated that humans would be listening to it.

Microsoft only records Skype conversations that use its translation features, in order to “help the translation and speech technology learn and grow,” according to the Skype FAQ section. If you’re not using translation features, your sweet nothings are reportedly as private as you want them to be. The updated FAQ section also now states that “Microsoft employees and vendors” may be transcribing the translated audio, and the procedures are “designed to protect users’ privacy, including taking steps to de-identify data, requiring non-disclosure agreements with vendors and their employees,” and more.

But Cortana’s data gathering isn’t limited to translation. According to its support page, Microsoft can collect your voice data literally any time you “use your voice to say something to Cortana or invoke skills.” If that worries you, we recommend spending some time adjusting the settings on your Microsoft Privacy Dashboard.

[h/t Vice]

Amazon Is Making It Easier for Sellers to Donate Returned or Unsold Items Instead of Trashing Them

ronstik/iStock via Getty Images
ronstik/iStock via Getty Images

After mailing back an unwanted Amazon order or bringing it to a drop-off location, you may assume your return will find its way to a good home. But not every item returned to Amazon is re-listed on the website. Many third-party sellers working through Amazon simply toss returned products in the trash along with any surplus goods they can't sell. That's about to change: As CNBC reports, the retailer will make its new Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) Donations program the default option for independent shops based in the U.S. and the UK.

Starting in September 2019, sellers that have unwanted returns or unsold items sitting in an Amazon warehouse can depend on the company to donate them to a good cause. In the U.S., products that are eligible for donation will be sent to various nonprofits through a charity group called Good360, and in the UK, groups including Newlife, Salvation Army, and Barnardo will distribute the goods.

“We know getting products into the hands of those who need them transforms lives and strengthens local communities,” Alice Shobe, director of Amazon in the Community, said in a statement. “We are delighted to extend this program to sellers who use our fulfillment services.”

Amazon charges independent sellers 50 cents to ship unsold items back to them and just 15 cents to throw them away, meaning that donating or trying to resell returned items wasn't always cost-effective for businesses. Amazon reportedly wasted 293,000 products over a nine-month period in just one French distribution center alone.

The company now aims to incentivize sellers to donate their unsold and returned inventory by making it the cheaper option, according to sellers who spoke to CNBC. As part of this program, Amazon will also manage the logistics and work with charities in an effort to "streamline the donation process for independent sellers."

The Fulfillment by Amazon Donations program will be the default for U.S. and UK sellers starting on September 1, but stores will still have the opportunity to opt out if they wish.

[h/t CNBC]

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