Who’s watching you watch them?

Smart TV services are tracking you more closely than you think

“We value your privacy,” says the big splash banner on the Daily Express website, shortly before you click “I Accept” to the recommended settings and it drops no fewer than 50 trackers on your computer. 

Still, that’s the well-known price of business on the web, right? We put up with a horrendous number of ad trackers, trying to sell us the thing we already bought on Amazon last Thursday, just so we can read the story about Princess Diana posthumously warning us not to eat Marmite on a Tuesday (or whatever other nonsense the Express is churning out today).

What about your TV? Surely the worst advertising excesses you’ve got to put up with there are the two minutes of pre-roll ads before you get to watch Gogglebox on catch-up? Afraid not. A new study called Watching You Watch, conducted by researchers from Princeton and the University of Chicago, has shed light on the trackers that are hidden within internet television services such as Amazon Fire TV and Roku. The report makes for more shocking viewing than Channel 4’s Naked Attraction.

No fewer than 89% of the channels on Amazon’s Fire TV service have trackers built into them, feeding information about your viewing habits and more back to companies such as Google.

On Roku, it’s 69% of channels. The information the trackers are feeding back includes what you’re watching, which ads you’ve sat through, the unique identifiers of your devices, your postcode and more. Four channels – two on Amazon and two on Roku – even feed back the email address used to create your internet TV account to third-party advertisers. 

Of course, you’ve probably agreed to this in chapter VI, paragraph VIII of the 45-screen User Agreement you blithely clicked to accept when you first installed the hardware, because if you actually bothered to fully read such documents, you wouldn’t have time to watch TV in the first place. But I’m willing to bet my kids’ savings accounts that fewer than 1% of viewers had any idea that their TV was relaying their personal information to advertisers.

Even if you’ve fiddled around in the Amazon or Roku settings and found the options to switch off the tracking, the US researchers claim you might as well not have bothered, describing the TV services’ privacy-protecting options as “practically ineffective”.

What’s to be done about this? The researchers recommend that the TV services come with a web browser-style private-browsing mode that allows viewers to watch without fear of their data being fed to the wolves. I’d go further. An outright ban on viewers’ data being sent to any third parties unless they have explicitly agreed to it – not just clicked through a massive user agreement – in the first place. 

Google has no more right to know what I’m watching than a bloke pressing his nose against my living room window, trying to catch a glimpse of my TV. I’d call the police if someone were doing that. It’s time that sneakily tracking your viewing habits on internet devices was treated with equal force

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