Connected TV Services Collect More Data Than You Know

The New York Times recently published a report on Samba TV, a company that produces what it calls Automatic Content Recognition (ACR) software for Smart TVs, comprised of a content recommendation engine and a viewer tracking application. This combination of solutions allows Samba TV to send targeted ads on mobile devices based on what people are watching on internet-connected TVs in real time.

Samba TV collects data from 13.5 million TV viewers and has deals with a number of TV makers – including Sony, Sharp, Toshiba, and Philips – to feature its software on some of their sets. The company has also raised $40 million in venture funding from investors including Time Warner and billionaire Mark Cuban. Its client list includes companies such as Citi and Expedia.

When users purchase a Samba-enabled TV, they are prompted during set up to enable a service called Samba Interactive TV, which promises them to recommend shows and provide special offers. A dream proposition for marketers.

In the message, Samba Interactive TV is clear that it derives its recommendations “by cleverly recognizing on-screen content.” What the prompt misses though is the rest of the details contained in the 6500+ word terms of service agreement and a 4000-word privacy policy. Back in 2016, company executives had said that more than 90% of people enable the service.

The crushing majority of users that click without reading either of those documents unknowingly agree to allow Samba to create a so-called “device map” that links all devices that share a network with a smart TV.

Once enabled, Samba TV tracks what appears on the screen, reading pixels to identify shows, ads, and even video games played on the TV. Using that data, notifications can be sent to linked devices after a client’s commercial plays on TV, or after one from a rival airs.

Samba TV even has the ability to target people based on whether people watch conservative or liberal media outlets and which party’s presidential debate they watched. Sounds eerily reminiscent of a certain infamous analytics company.

Somewhat reassuring though is the fact that Samba TV does not sell its data. Instead, it uses it to let advertisers target individuals in exchange for a fee.

Still, Samba’s system poses a problem according to privacy advocates. For one, there seems to be very little public awareness when it comes to Smart TVs and data collection. The mobile app ecosystem and PC internet browsing, by contrast, have become infamous for their invasive nature in recent time, Smart TVs on the other do not carry that stigma, at least not yet.

What’s more, during the initial prompt, even if some users are keen to read Samba TV’s terms of service and privacy policy, they would either have to go online or click through to another screen on the TV.

For instance, missing from the prompt screen is the fact that Samba uses the device map to track users track users in their daily routines even when they are far from the TV.

Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy at the advocacy group Consumers Union and a former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission, said to the New York Times: “I’d like to see companies do a better job of making that clear,” in reference to Samba’s data collection methods, “and explaining the value proposition to consumers.”