Vizio Smart TVs Spied on Users; Sold Data to Ad Firms

John Lister's picture

Smart TV sets that passed on user data without permission might have to display a message suggesting users sue the manufacturers. It's an unusual proposal in a class action lawsuit.

Last year Vizio agreed to pay $3.7 million in fines to settle investigations by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the New Jersey attorney general. The TVs in question used Internet connectivity (providing the TV was connected to Internet access at the home by the user), which then utilized a feature called "Smart Interactivity". Though the feature was enabled by default, users could switch it off but likely wouldn't have done so given the description that it "enables program offers and suggestions."

In fact, the TV set was using a highly creative technique of analyzing the individual pixels in a selection of the screen and then matching it to an industry database of movies and TV shows - the same technology used for spotting illegal uploads on sites like YouTube.

User Behavioral Details Sold To Advertisers

The technique meant the set could figure out what the users were watching, regardless of whether it was on a TV station, a streaming service or a disc. Vizio then sold details of what shows users had watched along with their IP addresses. That meant, for example, that advertisers could use it to deliver customized ads on websites. (Source:

The fines only covered punishment for breaches of the rules, rather than compensations for users whose privacy was violated. That meant a class action lawsuit inevitably followed.

As is usual in such cases, the plaintiffs and defendants work together to notify everyone who might be part of the class action case - a potential 11 million people in this case. The notification is important as usually people are automatically included unless they opt out. By remaining included, they qualify for a share of any damages but lose the right to bring an individual case.

Message Wording To Be Determined

The law says the notifications have to be sent in the most practical and effective way. Normally these days that means emails, with newspaper ads as a back-up in case anyone is missed out.

However, the two sides have agreed in principle that as the televisions are connected to the Internet, Vizio can make them display an on-screen message detailing the lawsuit. The deadline for the notification has been put back a few weeks to allow time to develop a suitable wording and test that the messages can be delivered. (Source:

It's not clear if this will be the only method of notification. That would seem unlikely as some users will have replaced their TV sets since the breaches.

What's Your Opinion?

Should users get compensation for the privacy breach? Is an on-screen message a suitable way to tell people about the class action case? Would the tracking have been acceptable if users knew it was happening and could make an informed decision whether to opt out?

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Dennis Faas's picture

It is ironic that the peripheral used to spy (the TV) is the one to deliver the class action lawsuit message. It is bitter sweet to see the same technology used to undermine companies that abuse privacy laws. Touche! I also believe the class action message should be delivered by good old snail mail, in case (as the article mentions) that the TVs are no longer being used by their original owners.

Focused100's picture

Hi Dennis

There was a big article about this in a major publication recently.

The consumer must opt in when the TV is new but the wording is truly nefarious.
Something like "click OK to see programs you like" when it should have said "click here to be tracked to high heaven and all your viewing habits sent to marketers so they know every bit about you."

pctyson's picture

It states in some of the articles that Vizio informed customers via the TV itself that the setting was there. My TV NEVER even mentioned the setting. I will be MORE than happy to take as much of their money as I can. Also, it will be unlikely that I will purchase another Vizio TV again!!! No wonder their TV's were cheaper yet had good specs. They could afford to make less on the TV because they were making a fortune off of the data. If you think that there is not a lot of money in the data, just think of Amazon's Alexa. I seriously doubt that they are making a whole lot off of the hardware for that device either.

David's picture

If I had owned one of these TVs I would not want to keep it around, and certainly not connected to the internet. How would class members in this situation be notified?

Ksands2_10892's picture

I thing anyone who owns a Vizio should be compensated for the privacy breach. I’m sure they made plenty selling this info and it should all go to those whose privacy was invaded.

PseudoGeek's picture

Unfortunately, the typical remedy in a class action lawsuit is that actual money is provided only to the lawyers (in huge sums), while the people who were damaged get virtually nothing. After GM was sued for their "exploding pickup trucks" (which was probably never really true to begin with) I finally received my settlement: A coupon for a little discount if I bought a brand new pickup. But on the bright side, the lawyers who "represented" me raked in millions.