In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother was able to keep the people of Airstrip One under near total-surveillance through television sets installed in every room. The idea of having someone watching our every move, listening to everything we say is creepy, but thankfully that doesn’t happen in real life. Or does it?
According to one Yorkshire-based blogger, LG may not be that far behind Orwell’s Big Brother in the surveillance stakes, after he discovered that his new Smart TV set is keeping track of everything he watches, and sending all of that info to the South Korean manufacturer’s servers.
The blogger, an IT consultant who goes by the username of DoctorBeet, revealed that his LG 2013 Smart TV was sending data to the company’s servers every single time he changed the channel, or added a new form of media. DoctorBeet discovered this was happening after noticing the tailored advertising that appeared on his home screen menu. This led him to discover what he calls a “rather creepy corporate video advertising LG’s data collection practices” – in the video, LG boasts that it’s able to analyse viewers favourite TV shows, and can then show specific adverts to different users, for example “alluring cosmetics for women,” and “sharp suits for men”.
This in itself wouldn’t be much cause for concern. After all, pretty much every technology company, including the likes of Google, Microsoft and Samsung, collects data from their customers. But in LG’s case, it could be guilty of some serious naughtiness. Delving into his Smart TV’s menus, DoctorBeet found an option that appears to govern the collection of viewing data for use by advertisers:
“In fact, there is an option in the system settings called [Collection of watching info] which is set ‘On‘ by default,” wrote DoctorBeet. “This setting requires the user to scroll down to see it and, unlike most other settings, contains no ‘balloon help’ to describe what it does.”
All well and good – LG gives users the chance to opt out – but wait! Even after opting out, DoctorBeet discovered that much to his surprise, his LG Smart telly was still sending the same data about his viewing behaviour to the company’s servers. This included the name of the channel he was watching, the exact time that he switched the channel, his home country, his TV’s unique device ID, and perhaps most worryingly, even the file names on an external HDD (hard disk drive) connected via USB. DoctorBeet blogged:
It turns out that LG appears to be collecting viewing data, regardless of whether I’ve opted in or out.
DoctorBeet later told the BBC that all the opt-out option did was to flag the data to indicate that the viewer doesn’t want their data to be collected – but that doesn’t stop it from being sent.
Even worse, the data is sent unencrypted, which means that viewer’s personal information could also be intercepted by anyone else using the same network, or else by hackers or other third-parties, such as government agencies or advertisers.
When contacted by DoctorBeet, LG initially brushed off his concerns with the lazy suggestion that he contact the retailer who sold him the TV. However, when the BBC pressed the company for answers, it changed its tune all too quickly, saying that “customer privacy is a top priority, and as such we take this issue very seriously”.
A spokesman for the company said that LG was looking into reports that data collected by its Smart TVs was being shared without consent, and asked users for their patience and understanding while it investigates the matter.