At some point, everybody with a healthy-ish streak of paranoia has wondered if their electronics are secretly monitoring them and sending reports back to insidious corporations and/or unchecked government agencies. Obviously, that stuff does really happen all the time, but the only thing that makes it legal is that the vast majority of people don’t actually realize it’s happening. Much like a lot of traffic infractions, it’s only illegal if you get caught doing it. Unfortunately for electronics company Vizio, it got caught doing that.
According to a report from the Federal Trade Commission (a government body that Donald Trump apparently hasn’t gotten around to gutting yet), Vizio has been fined nearly $4 million for secretly monitoring the habits of TV viewers and selling that information to advertisers. Evidently, some Vizio TVs have been tracking a certain group of pixels on the screen to determine what people were watching while also pulling viewing data from streaming services, DVD players, over-the-air broadcasts, and cable boxes. It would then pair this information with the viewer’s IP address and home address, allowing advertisers to find out not only what a person liked to watch, but also their age, gender, income, martial status, education level, and all sorts of other things that advertisers feed on.
Vizio did all of this under the guise of its “Smart Interactivity” feature, which claimed to enable “program offers and suggestions” to viewers based on their TV habits. The FTC and New Jersey attorney general have now determined that the “Smart Interactivity” description is way too vague to properly encompass how nefarious this scheme really is, so they’ve forced Vizio to stop tracking people without authorization and to start telling people what data is being collected. Also, the company has to pay $1.5 million to the FTC and a “civil penalty” of $2.2 million to the state of New Jersey.
Meanwhile, the webcam on your computer is beaming your face directly to James Comey’s office right at this very second.