A security camera on a ceiling in front of a TV in a home.
Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock.com

Your smart TV is probably tracking what you watch. “Automated content recognition” (ACR) technology detects what you’re watching, uploading snippets of content to a reference library so marketers can keep track of your viewing habits.

Your Smart TV Is Reporting What You Watch

Automated content recognition isn’t the only tracking issue on TVs, but it’s one of the most startling. Here’s what the marketing industry doesn’t want you to know:

Many TVs have “automated content recognition” technology that detects what you’re watching—even if you’re watching OTA TV or an old VHS tape—and informs marketers.

When this feature is enabled—and it’s probably enabled by default, or after a prompt that really encourages you to enable it without explaining it properly—your smart TV will monitor your watching habits and home phone. To do so, your smart TV will capture sections of video, snippets of audio, still images, or some combination of the three, and upload the data to a “listening post,” as AdExchanger’s guide for marketers explains it.

Even if you never touch your smart TV’s software and you just play video games from a console, stream with an Apple TV, or connect a PC via HDMI, your smart TV is likely watching and phoning home.

What do the marketers do with this data? As AdExchanger puts it: “Once the data has been collected, TV analytics companies ingest ACR data and combine it with other data sets to make it more accurate and usable.”

In other words, data about what you’re doing on your TV is combined with other sources of data. These could include your web browsing history, search history, product purchases, and credit card transaction data. That data can then be used to build a more complete profile on you and your TV habits to better serve you targeted ads.

“You Are in Control!”

A man giving a thumbs up in front of a TV.
Ana Blazic Pavlovic/Shutterstock.com.

Of course, this monitoring isn’t happening against anyone’s will! That would be unethical. All the people who have this feature enabled on their TVs are surely informed consumers making an informed decision to share their data with marketers.

For example, on a Roku smart TV, you have to head to Settings > Privacy > Smart TV Experience and disable “From TV Inputs” to deactivate ACR features.

We’re sure that all those Roku TV users out there understand exactly what this option does, right? The majority of Roku TV users all really want marketers to know exactly what they’re watching at all times.

That’s one perspective. Here’s another one:

TV manufacturers are only getting away with this by making ACR-related options confusing and buried, counting on TV customers not knowing that their televisions are even capable of this. Case in point: Vizio paid out a $17 million settlement after it was sued for making these options confusing and misleading. Of course, Vizio never admitted that it did anything wrong.

Finally, let’s face it: Smart TVs are cheaper than dumb TVs because of this data collection. Roku makes its money from ads and paid video content, not from selling hardware.

RELATED: The Smart TV Crapware Era Has Already Begun

Consumer Reports has a good guide to turning off ACR and other snooping features on smart TVs from a wide variety of brands.

Just Disconnect Your Smart TV and Be Done with It

We could go on about other “features” you might not like, like the interactive advertisements Roku sometimes slips into cable TV programs. But honestly, what’s the point? Why not just prevent the smart TV software from phoning home in the first place?

To do so, just cut off your smart TV’s internet connection. If the TV is plugged into your network via an Ethernet cable, unplug it. If it’s connected to Wi-Fi, have your TV forget the Wi-Fi network. If your TV can’t connect to the network, it can’t phone home. When you get a new smart TV, consider not even connecting it to the network. You probably can’t avoid buying a smart TV, so this at least lets you treat a smart TV as if it were a traditional “dumb TV.” Problem solved!

RELATED: How to Disconnect Your Roku TV From Wi-Fi

Of course, this isn’t an ideal solution. If you love your smart TV’s software, you’re making a sacrifice. However, if you only use your smart TV as a “dumb” display for other devices, it’s a great solution.

If you do really like your smart TV’s software, be sure to look up a guide for turning off as many privacy-invasive features as you can.

But remember: Other devices often have their own tracking features. Even if you have a streaming platform that doesn’t track your watching habits (like an Apple TV), apps that you run on that platform (like Netflix, for example) will keep track of your watching habits in those individual apps.

Still, even if your streaming box is monitoring your watching habits, at least your smart TV won’t be. That’s a win if you want to keep marketers from knowing everything about your life.

Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read nearly one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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