Vizio Latest Manufacturer To Offer More Ways For TVs To Watch Purchasers

from the buy-our-things-so-we-can-sell-your-data! dept

Vizio is the latest consumer electronics manufacturer to announce — publicly, but not, like, PR-onslaught publicly — that its TVs will be watching purchasers as much as purchasers are watching them. The details of its strategy to generate the most ROI from each and every purchaser willing to blow past the fine print during setup are contained in the company’s SEC filing for its debut as a public company. Engadget’s Richard Lawler has the details. (h/t to Techdirt reader MarcAnthony)

According to the filing, Vizio has sold more than 15 million smart TVs, with about 61 percent of them connected as of the end of June. While viewers are benefiting from those connections, streaming over 3 billion hours of content, Vizio says it’s watching them too, with Inscape software embedded in the screens that can track anything you’re playing on it — even if it’s from cable TV, videogame systems and streaming devices.

Here’s the potential shareholder-friendly description included in the S-1 filing:

Our Inscape data services capture, in real time, up to 100 billion anonymized viewing data points each day from our over 8 million VCUs. Inscape collects, aggregates and stores data regarding most content displayed on VCU television screens, including content from cable and satellite providers, streaming devices and gaming consoles. Inscape provides highly specific viewing behavior data on a massive scale with great accuracy, which can be used to generate intelligent insights for advertisers and media content providers and to drive their delivery of more relevant, personalized content through our VCUs.

And here’s the grand plan, which is a slice of a multi-billion dollar data sales market:

We believe our business focus enables a self-reinforcing consumer use and engagement model that we expect to fuel our growth while driving revenue. Our connected entertainment products and discovery and engagement software increase usage of our platform, enabling Inscape to gather more anonymized data on viewing behaviors, which we can deliver to advertisers and media content providers. These companies in turn can deliver more relevant and personalized content for viewers, further enhancing the entertainment experience. We believe this self-reinforcing cycle will increase our brand awareness and enhance demand for our connected entertainment products.

What’s curious about the wording isn’t the gung ho appropriation of viewer data to sell to advertisers. What’s curious is Vizio’s claim that “anonymized data” will result in “more relevant and personalized content” for purchasers. There may be a certain level of anonymity involved, but Vizio still needs to provide enough defining demographic data to make this information worth purchasing. There is some value in general data like number of viewers of specific content at certain times, but Nielsen has done this sort of thing for years and it’s a huge stretch to call anything about TV advertising “personal” or “relevant.” So, there’s something a bit off about the anonymization claims Vizio is making here.

The other issue is that while Vizio is being upfront with regulators about this aspect of its TV offerings, it’s not being similarly explicit with purchasers. It is truly the rarest of customers that seeks out a television for its ability to offer “personalized content” in exchange for the sale of his or her viewing data to marketers.

Will users know Vizio is selling their viewing data, including that generated by third-party devices connected to a Vizio smart TV? Probably not. While Lawler noted on Twitter than the SEC filing contains 102 mentions of Inscape, the term fails to surface in searches of Vizio’s website. There’s also nothing referencing the service in its Privacy Policy.It’s not as though this is a feature (which many purchasers would find closer to a bug) still in development. Vizio’s own filing indicates this is already in use. While it may be proudly trumpeting its built-in spyware to potential shareholders, it seems a bit more reluctant to inform potential purchasers about the company’s thirst for sellable data.

Far too many electronic device manufacturers are unwilling to honestly discuss this part of the business with paying customers, preferring pages and pages of legalese to do the talking for them — a tactic that allows for both ass-coverage and obfuscation. Vizio does better than some by providing instructions on how to disable this on-by-default “interactivity” early on in its Privacy Policy, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse yet another manufacturer that views paying customers as ongoing revenue streams long after they’ve collected the purchase price for the device. In today’s electronics market, it’s not enough to simply be a paying customer. You must also be the product as well.

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Comments on “Vizio Latest Manufacturer To Offer More Ways For TVs To Watch Purchasers”

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69 Comments
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Wouldn't be so bad if they gave you the TV

Sounds like the same racket the cable companies have been pulling for decades. Advertising originated as a way to pay for broadcast TV, because it was broadcast for free and the viewers weren’t paying for it.

Then along came a model where viewers did pay for it… but did the ads go away? We should be so lucky!

tqk (profile) says:

Re: I don't want any ads from anyone

This is why I rediscovered public libraries. Technical manuals and non-fiction, I want to own outright. Entertainment, I want to borrow for a limited time, then recycle.

It’s also quite amazing how many people think this way. I know about three groups in my small town who give away used books, video cassettes, CDs and DVDs to all comers. If you still own a VC player, you can do very well for no cost whatever. People who’ve abandoned VC players give the cassettes away just to get rid of them.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: anonymized and personalized?

… they’re stating it’s anonymized, but acknowledging it’s personalized …

Well, there’s personalized, and then there’s personalized. An advertiser doesn’t need to know your name or DOB to flog their product at you, but they do want to flog their product to only those people who’re conceivably wanting to purchase said product and can pay for it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Bogus Instructions

Vizio does better than some by providing instructions on how to disable this on-by-default “interactivity”…

Unfortunately, the instructions they give don’t work on my TV because the option isn’t where they say it is. I found it buried elsewhere in the menus, but many people won’t be able to find it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Rule of thumb

Before thinking that functionality is something that your customers would actually want, ask yourself “is it a good idea to put copy on packaging and advertising that tells customers about this wonderful feature?”

If the answer is “no”, then the feature is a hostile act against your customers.

(Of course, Vizio knows full well this is a hostile act. They’re just lying to their shareholders about it.)

Miles Barnett (profile) says:

I Won a Vizio TV

I won one of their “smart” TV’s in a drawing. When I turned it on, the first thing that came up was a license agreement for me to click “agree”. I’ll be damned if I agree to a license just to watch TV. I never hooked up Wifi or ethernet. Besides, my setup is way more sophisticated that their TVs ever will be.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: I Won a Vizio TV

I never hooked up Wifi or ethernet.

Sadly, doesn’t matter.

Vizio SmartTVs come with a built in Wifi Access Point, DIRECT-PO-VIZIOTV, which uses some sort of bastardized WPA encryption scheme, and includes WPS (though I have yet to be able to crack it.) This AP seems to be related to the Vizio TV’s wireless remote control which can be disabled, but the AP in the TV cannot and according to Vizio, other devices can also be attached to the AP though I couldn’t get them to elaborate on what could.

Thus, anyone driving by your house knows you have a Vizio TV, and if they know how to connect to it, they can likely download the data stored on the TV (either directly or via some sort of vulnerability.) After talking with Vizio about this, they told me there was no way to turn off the AP, and that I really should plug it into the network in order to get periodic updates they release to fix security issues with the TV (that shouldn’t exist if I could properly disable everything I didn’t need or want.)

A little more difficult than getting it directly, but if Google can pay folks to map the networks in your area, Vizio could pay someone to periodically drive around and access people’s TVs remotely.

Damn, you guys found me wearing my tin foil again!

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: It's Time for us Peaons to talk to our Gov'm'nt Representives

This has to stop.

Imagine if every consumer product were spying on how you use it?

And I mean the IoT. (Intarwebtubes of Things)

Your LED bulbs. Your toaster. Your refrigerator. Your TV. Your DVD player. Your car.

Imagine someone cough NSA cough being able to gather that data from all the various product manufacturers and then build up a highly detailed profile of every person’s life. Just how much could they learn? When you move from room to room in your house. What entertainment you watch. What music you listen to. When, where, and how fast you drive.

The privacy violation is vastly unimaginable.

But it slowly creeps in. One appliance, one device at a time.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: It's Time for us Peaons to talk to our Gov'm'nt Representives

… a product they sell include a “watch you” feature that may include a “phone home” and talk about you feature.

… and is intent on selling anything they can glean from their relationship with you to all and sundry shady “partners” of theirs. Twenty years ago, that sort of thing wouldn’t make it past infancy. Now, it’s a core function. Who needs North Korean or Chinese “hackers” when Madison Ave. & Silicon Valley is rolling this out to valued customers who’re paying to be boned by them?

With all the tinfoil hat complaining about Google selling anonymized data to advertisers, they’re pikers compared to these guys.

Anonymous Coward says:

problem is they market the features of their tvs; once you turn it on you then are greeted with a terms and conditions agreement to hand them full approval to track and sell you data.

you decline the agreement, to be a product, and you lose those wonderful features they marketed to you. Put in that light, most people are going to agree to whatever so they can get the tv features they paid for already.

If these companies want to sell my info, they need to share the profits with me; otherwise step the hell back.

—-

flip side is, this does create innovation. as water finds it’s way around a rock in the stream, so to will developers find ways around this.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised at how aggressively TV manufacturers are working to make their products as objectionable as possible.

It’s the way of the world this century, not just TV mfgrs. Cf. Keurig.

I wonder if we can blame it on reality TV. Once they learned how stupid the average prole is, they knew they could get away with damned near anything no matter how foolish the idea is in the long run. The other side of this is, if you believe in the pendulum theory of history, we should have full blown anarcho-capitalism within ten years. Murray Rothbard station next stop.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Any “smart” TV capable of running Skype is going to have a camera embedded in it, whether or not Skype is actually installed. Additionally, one way or another, your device is going to have a microphone installed if it accepts voice commands, or is slated to do so in the future (today’s surface mount microphone chips are as small as a pin-head and can ride piggy-back on other unrelated chips – in other words, this type of surveillance platform is dirt cheap, and as easy to hide as it is to implement).

tom (profile) says:

When I use software and controls on a PC that creates a data set that can be a visual picture, that data set/picture is in most cases automatically copyrighted by me. If I were to use the software and controls on a ‘smart/spy’ TV that results in a unique data set, is that data set copyrightable? If so, should I not be the copyright holder? Visio and other spy ware TV makers might be committing millions of copyright violations by stealing and profiting by using these copyrighted data sets without the express written permission of the TV owner.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Either way, they would contract around the situation to provide legal coverage in case you wanted to challenge their gathering your everything.

In this case I think make sure to include language in the EULA (if they don’t already) that by opening the product, you’re agreeing to license them something like a non-exclusive right to use/distribute/datamine what you’re creating/publishing.

Hans says:

Vote with you wallet and let them know how you feel!

Reading the Vizio instructions on How to turn on or off Smart Interactivity, they provide the following contact information:

techsupport@vizio.com
(855) 833-3221

I sent them the following:

How dare you enable “Smart Interactivity” on my television without getting explicit permission from me to spy on my activity.

Yes, I (now) know I can turn it off, but that’s hardly the point, is it? And how can even trust you that it’s really disabled after you so arrogantly deployed this shitty Doublespeak named feature without an explicit “opt-in”. I’m fairly certain you even added it to my television in a software “update”, without my permission.

Trust and reputation are important in the consumer product business, and you have burned any that you had. I have purchased several of your televisions, but I will never do so again and I will be recommending that all my friends, neighbors, and followers do the same.

Hans says:

Re: Vote with you wallet and let them know how you feel!

The response from Vizio:

Thank you for your recent inquiry with VIZIO.

I apologize we were not able to better accommodate you. VIZIO is always willing listen to its customers. We appreciate the feedback and I will be more than happy to pass this along.

If you need any additional assistance feel free to contact VIZIO at 1-888-849-4623 or chat with us at chat.vizio.com.

Jim B. says:

I find this onerous

I find it onerous. I never gave them permission. I never will. I will not accept advertisements injected into my stream nor a company watching my viewing habits.

I was looking at a Vizio TV and nearly bought one. I decided to hold off. The next day I saw the article describing what Vizio was doing. Vizio lost a sale.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I find this onerous

No. It looks to me like you’ve just looked it up now, and are trying to retroactively fit it to what you wrote.

The definition from Google’s dictionary is “involving an amount of effort and difficulty that is oppressively burdensome.”

Onerous, correctly defined, is a burden, it represents work one must do.

Vizio put absolutely no burden on you, even though what they did sucked. It was not onerous. Your usage context does not fit a situation where Vizio is putting effort and difficulty on you, rather it indicates you meant to use a word more like “presumptuous”.

The joke is from The Princess Bride, where Vizzini repeatedly uses the word “inconceivable” for things that are not only conceivable, but also occur. Fezzik tells him “I don’t think [that word] means what you think it means.”

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Nice knowing you vizio

Looks like vizio just lost our districts money if it is going to monetize our students actions.

I suspect you’re soon going to run out of acceptable potential vendors.

On the bright side, I see they’re now selling ten packs of mechanical pencils made out of recycled materials (they look like cardboard tubes) for only $1.25, so it’ll be cheap to go back to pencils & paper. You may need to teach the kids how to use them, however.

Anonymous Coward says:

I doubt Vizio is the only manufacturer doing this, nor are TV’s the only things remotely reporting your data. It’s double dipping; payment from me and payment from selling data too.

It’s also a sweet back door open for abuse. How long will it take for MPAA to require that TV’s be disabled if “illegal” content is being shown?

I’d like to see the tables reversed. All my data belongs to me. If they want to compile and use it, then they have to get my agreemet and pay me.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Advertisement has become so intrusive and annoying that I’ve seen quite a few people I know to actively avoid ads when they are visible.

From the other end of the transaction, Slate recently informed its non-US readers that, as their advertisers don’t want to pay to advertise to us, they’re essentially implementing a paywall for us.

G’bye Slate. Not a great loss for me. Not a great loss for them either. Still, pretty stupid for a “news” org, I think. We used to call this “shooting yourself in the foot.”

tqk (profile) says:

Re: I can assure you...

It is bad enough my cable provider, internet provide, smart phone and cellphone provider are spying on me. I don’t need to add to that list.

Heard of Tails Linux? Runs from a USB key tor (or i2p) enabled from boot; Ed Snowden recommended. For phones, replace stock Android with something cyanogenmod-ish. iBaubles? Accept you’re trendy but boned.

Take that, director Comey!

Stephen says:

Just Whose Data is it Anyway?

Shouldn’t Vizio be paying its purchasers to spy on them?

After all, reality TV shows compensate their stars in assorted ways for pointing cameras and microphones at them and recording their antics. Why should Vizio be allowed to do its recording without paying the clientele anything for what amounts to a new class of reality television?

I would also point out that there would be a lot less incentive for companies like Vizio to install spy devices in their products if they had to pay their purchasers for the privilege of spying on them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wonder how long it’ll be before there’s a home version of a way to block all wireless signals except for a few exceptions that can be turned on or off by the user?

I think what disturbs me the most is that manufacturers have put so much research and development into functions that users don’t want, not too far off from “disabled by design”. Clearly “capitalism” is not alive and well when the customer is always wrong.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Clearly “capitalism” is not alive and well when the customer is always wrong.

Capitalism is alive and well (but the customer is not always right). It’s just not prevalent. Would be tyrants and special interests mooching political favors that our taxes pay for tend to be prevalent these days. “We, the people” are too busy with 21st Century complexity, and our educators are not preparing us very well for dealing with any of it (they never really could). As a mostly self-taught individual, this’s no surprise to me. We expected far more from public education than it was ever capable of delivering. It’s a glorified baby-sitting service at best, and cradle to grave debt machine.

When I’m elected Dark Overlord, I’ll disband public education and plow the money saved into universally accessible libraries free for all to use. I don’t know why we didn’t do that in the first place. I suppose free baby-sitting was too hard to pass up, given all the other crap people were finding they needed to deal with.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Maybe the horse can smell the well’s poisoned.

MarcAnthony (profile) says:

Class action?

The Vizio terms of service are unconscionable. This alleged “agreement” is made under duress, given that their product is unmerchantable by design; according to a response (to my complaint) from Vizio’s own tech support representative, you must consent to their TOS or you can’t even use the intended functionality of the device; no reasonable consumer would buy a TV that could only be used by consenting to onerous and unfairly one-sided terms. Further, the written agreement expressly allows Vizio to modify the terms unilaterally without notification to the other party and does not provide for the ablity to rescind.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Class action?

… no reasonable consumer would buy a TV that could only be used by consenting to onerous and unfairly one-sided terms.

Commercial software users have been doing that for more than a couple decades. “EULA”s are known for being the least read and understood contracts ever devised by man. However, SCOTUS allows it anyway.

Linux users have been complaining about this “Microsoft Tax” for just as long, but can I now get a refund for the pre-installed Windows(TM) software on my new computer which I’ll never use? Chyaa, right.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

Todd P says:

Terrible Buy, Go with another brand !

Terrible smart tv. Limited apps and almost every Tv app is a subscription paid service with NO options to install outside apps. If you want to watch Youtube or run a cable to it for tv then this is the tv for you.
–If you want a tv to watch real FREE tv then buy something else like an Android Tv box or other brand.

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