Democrat senators are asking federal regulators to investigate the manufacturers of smart televisions amid worries that the devices are collecting more personal information than previously though.
In a letter sent Thursday to Joseph Simons, chairmen of the Federal Trade Commission, Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) voiced their concerns about “consumer privacy issues raised by the proliferation of smart-TV technology.”
Companies, claim the senators, use new tools to track viewers browsing and usage habits. Rather than containing data-based advertisements to television sets, they’re sometimes sent to other devices sharing the same internet connection as a so-called “smart-TV.”
Citing a New York Times article published last week, Markey and Blumenthal highlighted the controversial practices of San Francisco software company Samba TV. Sama, says the Times, has been criticized for a lack of transparency. Customers may be given the option to opt out of targeted advertisements, but many don’t.
That may be due, at least in part, to conditions which don’t disclose the amount of information being collected by smart television sets.
“Regrettably,” wrote the senators, “smart-TV users may not be aware of the extent to which their televisions are collecting sensitive information about their viewing habits.” Using Samba TV as an example, they said the company doesn’t “provide sufficient information about its privacy practices to ensure users can make truly informed decisions.”
Samba, per the Times, collects viewing data from 13.5 million homes across the United States. Certain sets from Sony, Sharp, TCL and Philips contain Samba software.
The Times reports that Samba “essentially pays television manufacturers to be included on their sets, saying its business model “does subsidize a small piece of television hardware,” though it declined to provide further details.”
Owners of Samba-enabled television sets are asked during set-up whether they’d like to enable “Samba Interactive TV.”
The opt-in message, reprinted by the NYT, reads: “Interact with your favorite shows. Get recommendations based on the content you love. Connect your devices for exclusive content and special offers. By cleverly recognizing onscreen content, Samba Interactive TV lets you engage with your TV in a whole new way.”
Along with making content suggestions, Samba can also direct advertisements to the television set and other devices on a shared internet connection, like laptops, personal computers and smartphones.
Markey and Blumenthal said Samba’s opt-in language “does not clearly convey how much sensitive information about a user will be collected or whether the data will be used for targeted advertisements across different devices.”
The senators noted that privacy and disclosure laws regulating cable operators and traditional cable carriers don’t apply to internet-based television services.
Samba TV spokesperson Bill Daddi said the company shared the senators’ concerns.
“There is more to be done here,” he said, “and we will work with any member of Congress on this issue, as we have throughout the past few years.”
Daddi added that Congress had already reviewed the company’s opt-in language and was allegedly told that the FTC doesn’t explicitly “bless” any business practices.