Since 9/11, American citizens have become relatively anesthetized to the growth of the surveillance state. However, the NSA’s civil liberty transgressions sometimes obscure a reality that is becoming increasingly noxious: private industry is watching us just as voraciously as the government. Sometimes they use cameras, but it seems that more often, they are creating data-driven behavioral profiles of us based on everyday consumption in our own homes.
A troubling new report by ProPublica reveals that Vizio Smart TVs track what we view and report that information in a form that allows advertisers to then directly reach us on other devices. This is a bold new step past previous data collection by Samsung and LG Electronics.
The system is called “Smart Interactivity,” and here’s how it works: when you watch a Vizio Smart TV, the company assesses samples of what you’re viewing to note the date, time, content, and channel of programming, as well as your IP address; Vizio partners with data brokers to link your IP address with your age, gender, income and interests; the new “enhanced data” is given to advertisers, who track all devices associated with that IP address.
Companies like Experian, Tapad, and Neustar use proprietary “data enrichment” services to analyze certain attributes and factors like wealth and profession. They then tailor that information to deliver consumer profiles linked directly to IP addresses. Though each of these companies denies working with Vizio, it is with the service of “data enrichment” that the popular electronics brand is able to offer advertisers “highly specific viewing behavior data on a massive scale,” which is the pitch Vizio made in an October SEC filing.
Consumers may also believe they are legally protected from their information being sold to advertisers. However, the Video Privacy Protection Act, according to Vizio, does not apply to its new system, which the company describes thusly:
“Non-personal identifiable information may be shared with select partners … to permit these companies to make, for example, better-informed decisions regarding content production, programming and advertising.”
On the heels of NSA’s bulk metadata collection program being struck down, it’s hard not to question whether surveillance technology is simply transmogrifying from a defense function of the state to a data-driven profit margin of private industry. With collusion between the two so well documented in reports about the “Deep State,” analysts may consider that the relationship between Silicon Valley and the NSA is more fluid than previously thought. We already knew of the collusion between AT&T and the NSA. Is this just business as usual? Proponents of the deep state theory reply with a resounding ‘yes.’
There is no evidence at this time that Vizio is passing along its information to the NSA or any other government agency, but the ProPublica report presents another troubling instance of a corporation breaching public trust with advanced data collection tactics. Whether Big Brother has outsourced its domestic spying or corporations are just upgrading their metadata monetization efforts, we are being watched, tracked, and profiled more comprehensively than ever before.
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