Vizio Admits Modern TV Sets Are Cheaper Because They're Spying On You

from the watching-you-watching-me dept

If you’ve shopped for a TV recently, you may have noticed that it’s largely impossible to just buy a “dumb” TV set without all of the “smart” internals. More specifically, most TV vendors don’t want to sell you a bare-bones set because they want you to use their streaming services. Even more specifically, they want you to buy their sets with their specific streaming functionality because they want to spy on you. Poorly.

That’s always been fairly obvious to most folks, but it was nice to see Vizio CTO Bill Baxter acknowledge that the reason you pay a discount is because your viewing habits are being collected and sold to the highest bidder:

Q. One sort of Verge-nerd meme that I hear in our comments or on Twitter is ?I just want a dumb TV. I just want a panel with no smarts and I?ll figure it out on my own.? But it sounds like that lifetime monetization problem would prevent you from just making a dumb panel that you can sell to somebody.

A. Well, it wouldn?t prevent us, to be honest with you. What it would do is, we?d collect a little bit more margin at retail to offset it. Again, it may be an aspirational goal to not have high margins on our TV business because I can make it up downstream. On the other hand, I?m actually aggregating that monetization across a large number of users, some of which opt out.

It?s a blended revenue model where, in the end, Vizio succeeds, but you know, it?s not wholly dependent on things like data collection.

The problem is that this trade off isn’t really providing value to the end user, in large part thanks to the TV sector’s terrible security and privacy practices. For one, navigating the TV sector’s historically terrible GUIs to actually find and opt out of this data collection is often a nightmare. Usually opting out is first intentionally named something nebulous, then buried deep in a sea of terribly-designed menus. And even then, opting out can often result in you losing access to some core set features you might actually use. That’s only a good deal if you enjoy annoyance.

Then there’s the fact that the TV sector routinely does an absolutely terrible job at the security and privacy practices needed to protect this data. We’ve seen vendors like Samsung get busted hoovering up and collecting living room conversations, then shoveling this data off to a nebulous assortment of third-party clients. Numerous set vendors have similarly been busted collecting this data then transmitting it to the cloud without adequate encryption. Vizio itself just struck a $2.2 million settlement with the FTC for secretly tracking and selling the usage habits of around sixteen million Vizio owners for around three years.

So yes you’re maybe paying a bit less up front for a cheaper set, but you’re paying for the deal out the other side of the equation in a way that’s not even entirely calculable. Even then, higher-end TV set vendors do this same thing, kind of deflating the claim that this is only being done by necessity among lower-end vendors trapped by tight margins. In reality, the same disregard for privacy and security that has infected the internet of broken things space is on proud display in the TV business, resulting in hardware that’s easily exploitable by everyone from run of the mill hackers to intelligence services. Is that a bargain, really?

With so many streaming hardware platforms to choose from (game consoles, your phone, home-built PCs, Roku, Apple TV, etc.), many users just want a dumb TV with ample HDMI ports that simply does one job, really well. Instead, like so many sectors (telecom comes quickly to mind) the priority appears to be focused on treating user data like a harvestable resource, with security, privacy, and transparency a very distant afterthought.

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Companies: vizio

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Comments on “Vizio Admits Modern TV Sets Are Cheaper Because They're Spying On You”

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Rocky says:

Re: Re:

The point was that they can sell the TVs cheaper because they recoup some of the cost by selling the information about viewing habits.

That means you have have to produce “dumb” TVs that’s even cheaper – ie crappier.

So, a smart person buys a smart TV and never connects it to the net to dumb it down – problem solved.

OTOH, I guess we are not far away from smart TVs that need to be connected to the net to function – it is a natural progression after all.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The point was that they can sell the TVs cheaper because they recoup some of the cost by selling the information about viewing habits.

I’m not sure how much I buy that, though, because those costs they’re recouping are balanced out by the costs of developing the smart TV software in the first place. I’m a software developer by profession, and believe me, that kind of work doesn’t come cheap!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

They’re likely farming a lot of that out to others (I’ll bet the Netflix support is entirely funded by Netflix for example), using programmers from countries with lower living standards than your own, and using a bunch of open-source components. Much of the work will be reusable across product lines, and it does get relatively cheap when you can amortize across millions of units. Plus, enough people do want some of these “smart” features, like Airplay and Netflix (not everyone knows how to set up add-on boxes)—releasing a TV with no software will reduce their market.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

….using programmers from countries with lower living standards than your own, and using a bunch of open-source components.

And …. don’t forget this because it’s the biggest cost-saving technique of all ….

Make sure the programmers know you don’t care at all about the user’s security, or the stability of the user’s hardware, or about inconveniencing the user in any way at all, if those goals conflict in any way with getting the software delivered cheaply and quickly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

First, even though it’s already been done, that doesn’t contradict the fact that it’s very expensive to do.

It kind of does. Whether or not it was smart of them to develop it, Vizio already has the smart-TV software. So what would Vizio gain by developing a dumb TV? They’d save the costs of updates and patches, but, as someone else wrote, they’re evidently not doing much of that anyway. And as the CTO said, they’d have to sell it for more than their standard TV. Who’s the target market? Techies already know how to quarantine the spy software, and will find the opt-out option if it’s there.

If such a TV comes out, it will come from a company that didn’t already develop software.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Your concept of computer and web economics stinks to say the least.

What you are speaking of is barriers to entry that prevents small to medium size companies from competing but for large companies that sell thousands of product these fixed cost are insufficient on a per unit bases. As far as updates are concerned why would any sane company do that? By not updating they simply force obsolescence which forces the purchase of new equipment.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

A majority of the tool-chains for developing the software is open source, especially considering many smart TV’s run Android.

If they are not running Android they are most likely running one of the plethora of available media-centric OS’s available, look here

The cost isn’t that high, time spent on “developing” smart TV software is mostly look and feel customization since someone else already has developed the software.

FYI, I’m both a SW and HW developer and I’ve worked in the broadcast industry so I do know what the cost is – it’s the cheapest the manufacturer can get away with. Ever wonder why your TV’s GUI is sluggish? It’s running on the cheapest bare minimum HW needed.

In other words, I’m afraid the cost isn’t as high as you believe.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Digital TV is inherently slow. You’re not going to be able to flick through 5-10 channels per second like we could with analog. The keyframes don’t come often enough (in principle, 2-way communication on cable could let you request a keyframe right away; in practice, cable company boxes are shittier than smart TVs).

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I suspect he’s suggesting, as Gary does downthread, that you can get smart TV features by hooking your TV up to a computer, thereby getting the benefits of streaming TV but also maintaining a greater degree of control about disclosing what you’re watching (of course you’ll still be sending your viewing habits to Netflix or Amazon or whoever, but not to your TV manufacturer).

However, as a couple of posters have noted, just because you didn’t connect your TV to your wifi doesn’t mean it’s not phoning home. Can you be sure it’s not hopping onto open wifi networks, or broadcasting data via RF?

Whoever says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

However, as a couple of posters have noted, just because you didn’t connect your TV to your wifi doesn’t mean it’s not phoning home. Can you be sure it’s not hopping onto open wifi networks, or broadcasting data via RF?

I am not sure how "broadcasting data via RF" is different from using WiFI? Perhaps you really do mean "broadcasting", but that would require a nearby receiver and would be a privacy nightmare.

As for open WiFi, that is a possible concern, depending on where you live. Near my house, there are no truly open WiFi networks. A more likely possibility could be that the TV manufacturer purchases the right to use Xfinity or other ISP’s hotspots and configures a default login to the TV.

I believe that any TV manufacturer that automatically connected to a WiFi network without being configuring by the owner is actively trying to destroy its reputation.

Tin-Foil-Hat says:

Re: Re: Craigslist

I meant the CRT type. Yes you can get them for free but it’s a lot of work to get them home so it’s nice to test them out first. You know what would be really sinister? If someone retrofit modern spyware technology on a CRT TV and then left it on the curb for an unsuspecting person who specifically lugs the thing home because they assume it’s free of spyware.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Craigslist

You should not be paying to buy (most) CRTs. People should be paying you to take them, because the dump probably won’t take them for free, they’re (as you say) a pain in the ass to move, and free e-waste disposal days are rare and inconveniently located. High-quality Trinitron monitors for PCs are an exception; people still pay for those (see the thread on Hardforum).

LCDs are easier to test. You may need several adapters, like microHDMI-to-HDMI and HDMI-to-DVI, but you can get phones to output signals to them. Run through solid red/green/blue images to check for dead/stuck pixels. Where would you even find an NTSC signal these days?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Simple..

Until someone includes an LTE chip or an exec signs a deal with Comcast or At&T for their wifi networks and invalidates your method. Having a “smart” device means you have an unsecured computer in your home. The moment someone figures out how to take that computer over, you cease to have control over it again.

DataTheftbyTV says:

A few simple rules...

Periodically (I do mine quarterly) update the televisions firmware.

Steps to keep you / your data – safe…

1) Factory reset Television
2) Allow television to access internet
3) Firmware update
4) Blacklist Televisions wifi-adapter to block access to internet
5) Reconfigure your settings as needed
6) Enjoy your “dumb” television

DataTheftbyTV says:

Re: A few simple rules...


I can see it now..

Thank you for purchasing your new smart tv.
In order for your television to function correctly, you must have the television connected to the internet at all times.

Failure to connect your television to the internet, will cause the “software-license” to expire, preventing your television from displaying content from any source, regardless of where it was sourced from.

We hope you understand our need to reach our chain-mail covered fist up your ass to steal every possible bit of user data that we can in order to appease our share-holders greed.

If you’d like to use your television in an “offline” mode, please mail us your check for $1,000,000,000,000,000…(infinite zeros) and 00 cents to the following address.

123 Lawsuit City, 54321-0123
L1 Parking Orbit between Terra and Luna-1 Colony

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: A few simple rules...

Failure to connect your television to the internet, will cause the "software-license" to expire, preventing your television from displaying content from any source, regardless of where it was sourced from.

Meh. Do unencrypted sources even matter? My prediction is that you’ll need to be online to use HDCP, as soon as its purveyors (Intel, Netflix, et al.) decide they can get away with it. Look at the Xbox One controversy.

michael (profile) says:


I’m so glad the bullshit “smart” thing hasn’t entirely infiltrated the projector market.

Set-up for a ceiling-mounted project with HDMI wall socket in my living room took about 1.5 hours, and it can connect to any device (but I use an old, small desktop that fits in my end table).

Total cost: < $1000 for a 120″ screen that doesn’t spy on me. 4k would have added another $200.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:


If you need a TV as big as your wall, you already have issues. Don’t worry about the spyware.

They do make dumb TVs (and monitors). They are just the “smaller”ones. Those who like the big ones are already paying for pointless extra tech like 4K and such anyway, on top of the smart TV BS. I don’t think people give a crap.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: tl;dr

4K itself is generally useless in TVs, yes, considering that most people’s vision isn’t good enough to tell the different between 1920×1080 and 3840×2160 at standard TV sizes and viewing distances. However, a typical 4K TV now comes with HDR, which does make a significant difference in picture quality — provided you can access content that actually supports it.

(4K resolutions may make more sense for computers, where you’re sitting closer to the screen — though getting accelerated graphics to run at decent framerates at 3840×2160 requires a pretty expensive graphics card. Or two.)

Anonymous Coward says:

The interview reads like a hypothetical such as with the statement

it may be an aspirational goal to not have high margins on our TV business because I can make it up downstream

from the Vizio CTO. Is there any confirmation that the article reflects modern pricing practices or an aspirational future pricing practice?

Additionally, I have an extreme degree of difficulty believing opt-outs actually opt-out of collection after so many years of various organizations claiming their opt-out only stops ad-targeting from the information they will keep collecting about you.

Even if opt-out did prevent data collection, I am concerned about the bootstrapping problem where vendors will collect thorough information about the consumer upon powering on and connecting the T.V. prior to any actual opt-outs. I simply do not have any trust in vendors to be honest when it comes to this kind of market practice.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Can't I just put a piece of tape over the camera lens?

The spying also includes the software making note of the channels you watch and when, which won’t be solved with tape. I can imagine the conversation Junior has when he gets unsolicited ads in the mail from Playboy because he watched the Playboy Channel once and the spyware reported it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Televisions are generally used within the home. Within the home will also be a more powerful computer also at that fixed location. The performance is better with greater end-user control using the tv as a dumb box with smart features handled by the computer.

This differed with the smart phone case. There was value added to the user in the form of a portable connected device for occasions a computer is inconvenient or not available. Good for quickly retrieving information at a glance.

That value added does not exist in the television market. You wind up with features that burden the customer. The only way to move that crappier product is to remove choice from the market. I’d look into collusion across the tv set manufacturers, agreeing to remove dumb sets as an option in order to screw the consumer.

Gary (profile) says:

Tin Foil

I seem some pretty absurd suggestions about frequently wiping and flashing smart TV’s. Not sure how that will help?
My “Smart” TV is hooked up to a computer that I built. It isn’t on my wifi or the gigabit network.
This works for now. Eventually, they will either put a cel wireless device in the thing or lock it via software until you put it online.
Until then, my “Smart” TV is a large monitor.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Tin Foil

My "Smart" TV is hooked up to a computer that I built. It isn’t on my wifi or the gigabit network.

"UpdateTV is a multipath worldwide distribution system which allows digital televisions to automatically receive firmware upgrades and software patches sent out via terrestrial broadcast, digital cable networks, and the Internet. The network and technology has been under development by UpdateLogic since 2004, was completed in 2006, first shipped in TV sets in 2008 by Sony Electronics, and is now shipped in TVs from Sanyo and others.

In the terrestrial case, the UpdateTV solution … will be datacast by National Datacast on PBS TV stations across the United States. Major cable operators are required by contract to transmit the data such that the software upgrades are also passed to their customers."

Anonymous Coward says:

I have the last of the dumb TVs

My TV, a 40 inch Samsung HDTV was the last model that didn’t include smarts. There was a companion Blueray player I could have gotten with it that had the smarts in it. It’s nice having 4 HDMI ports, a VGA port, 2 sets of component ports, and a co-ax port for an actual antenna.

I haven’t bought a new TV because I can’t find a high-quality 4K dumb TV with at least 4 HDMI ports.

Smartassicus the Roman says:

Justa Thought I Thunk

I have a Vizio “smart” TV. In fact, i’m looking at its screen right now. I knew when I bought it that it was full of crap that spies on me, but I never intended to attach it to the ‘net either. It’s my (very low quality piece of junk with latency so bad it smears when it scrolls) PC monitor.
The solution here I think is to put a sticker over the ethernet port, or a warning in the wireless setup, that you’re a freakin idiot if you use the built-ins that steal your data and you the consumer bought it without thinking, so it’s not Vizio’s problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

Vizo has been done for audio spying, data spying and worst of all, hiding a FUCKING WEBCAM inside the power button/LED which records and sends back images and video of whoever is watching, and whatever they’re doing.

no doubt vizeo employeees regularly chuckle over seeing fat guys in their underpants watching dieting shows, and masturbate to couples having sex or children getting undressed.

HOW is vizio still an active company?

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