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Published: Dec 03, 2019 4 min read
Smart tv
Manuel Breva Colmeiro—Getty Images

The tables have turned: Your new TV is probably watching and listening to you.

Cyber security experts and consumer advocates have warned about privacy risks involved in smart TVs for a few years, but now the FBI is putting consumers on alert as well. An FBI office in Oregon urged shoppers ahead of the holiday shopping weekend to build up a “digital defense” against their smart TV.

Smart TVs connect to the Internet, allowing you to stream content from online services like Netflix and Hulu directly to your TV. The newer versions also have microphones for voice control — you can turn up the volume by yelling at the TV — as well as built-in cameras. In some cases, according to the FBI, the cameras are used for facial recognition so the TV can see who’s watching and recommend programs.

All that may sound like the futuristic universe of "The Jetsons" is finally coming to life, but the downside is that it opens your household up to serious privacy and security concerns.

TV manufacturers or app developers could be listening and watching you, likely in an effort to collect even more personal data to sell a more nuanced profile to advertisers. In fact, they already do this by tracking what you watch through technology called Automatic Content Recognition, though that’s supposed to be disclosed in user terms. Vizio was fined $2.2 million in 2017 for doing so without consumers' consent.

On the more nefarious side, hackers could also break into your TV. They might simply take control of your TV and change the channels or show inappropriate videos, according to the FBI note. In the worst-case scenario, they could access the camera in your bedroom TV and silently cyber-stalk you, in a plot straight out of "Mr. Robot."

Even if you’re not impressed with the new capabilities of smart TVs, your options for buying a dumb (uh, normal) TV are disappearing. About 70% of TV sales in 2018 were smart TVs, CNET reported earlier this year. You could have to buy a model that was at least five years old to get an old-fashioned device.

Here’s how to protect yourself if you're worried about smart TVs and privacy risks.

  • Research your TV. Know the exact features your TV comes with. The FBI recommends searching your model number with the words "microphone," "camera," and "privacy" to quickly find the precise information.
  • Pick a new password. Change all the default security settings your TV arrived with, including making a new password if you’re able, the FBI recommends. You should also check the privacy policy for your TV manufacturer and the streaming services you use. Look for the data they collect and what they do with it.
  • Stop your TV from snooping. You can turn off your TV’s automatic content recognition to limit the amount of personal data that’s collected. Consumer Reports put together a step-by-step guide, based on which device you use.
  • Cut the camera. Check whether you can turn off the microphone and/or camera. If you can’t turn the camera off, place a piece of black tape over the eye, a time-tested strategy for privacy-sensitive laptop users.