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Smart TVs caught sharing data with tech giants

Image credit: DT

Researchers from Imperial College London and Northeastern University have jointly investigated data sharing by smart TVs, finding that they share revealing data with companies including Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Smart TVs, which connect to the internet and other devices for app use, internet browsing and video streaming, have been quickly adopted by consumers. It has been suggested that their relatively low retail prices could be in part due to their utility as data-collection devices, harvesting data about viewing preferences for ad-targeting purposes.

According to figures shared on Statista, while just 12 per cent of UK households had a connected TV in 2014, 42 per cent had at least one in 2018.

The US and UK researchers investigated the data-sharing behaviour of commercially available smart TVs from brands such as Samsung and LG, in addition to other connected devices such as cameras. According to the Financial Times, it is the largest published study of its kind.

Much of the data shared with other tech and advertising companies was private in nature, including IP address, location, devices, and could even determine when a person leaves their home. This data was shared even when some devices were idle. As the data was largely encrypted, the academics were not able to confirm what additional data were shared.

The companies most frequently contacted were Amazon, Google, US-based cloud-service provider Akamai, and Microsoft (all of which provide cloud-computing services to support these devices). Facebook, Spotify and Netflix were also among the companies contacted. The researchers found that data was being shared with Netflix even when the user did not have a Netflix account; Netflix told the Financial Times that the data it received is “confined to how Netflix performs and appears on screen” and did not relate to other applications or activity.

Study author and Northeastern University computer scientist Professor David Choffnes told the Financial Times that Amazon have “a lot of visibility into what their competitors are doing”.

Google commented that: “Like other publishers, smart TV app developers can use Google’s ad services to show ads against their content or measure the performance of ads. Depending on the user’s chosen preferences on the device and consents, the publisher may share data with Google that’s similar to data used for ads in apps or on the web. Depending on the device manufacturer or the app owner, data sent to Google could include user location, device type and what the user is watching within a specific app so they can be targeted with personalised advertising.”

Facebook said: “It’s common for devices and apps to send data to the third-party services that are integrated into them. This could, for example, include an app sending data to Facebook to create a login interface, or provide a Like button.”

A separate study conducted by Princeton University academics found that some apps supported by streaming devices Roku and Amazon FireTV had been sharing personal user data to third parties, including Google.

The findings are likely to reignite longstanding concerns about security and privacy issues relating to consumer IoT devices, which frequently collect and share large amounts of data in the intimate home environment.

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