In the age of smartphones and mass Internet communication, it isn’t a surprise to learn that smart TV makers like Vizio and Samsung have been gathering and storing personal user data for years. What’s surprising is to know that some continued doing so without letting its customers know anything about it.
While this action alone is grounds for a lawsuit, going to the courts won’t guarantee government agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) won’t explore this privacy breach. And that is the problem.
The security breach was unveiled after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) struck a $1.2 million settlement with the smart TV vendor Vizio. The agency alleged Vizio had used its smart television sets to track user behavior starting in 2014. While this action isn’t uncommon, Vizio failed to disclose this information to consumers and potential consumers. For years, the company advertised its “Smart Interactivity” feature by claiming it was designed to “program offers and suggestions.” Nevertheless, suggestions were never made. Instead, the company collected a great variety of consumer data, such as IP addresses, metadata, and much more using its interactivity feature. And without alerting consumers.
According to the FTC complaint, the company was so good at collecting data that it was able to “[append] specific demographic information to the viewing data, such as sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership, and household value,” selling this information to third party organizations. These organizations then used the info to target advertising to certain consumers. Of course this was the only issue brought up by the FTC. And not the fact that law enforcement agencies could have explored this breach in order to boost its surveillance of households across the country without using due process or respecting the U.S. Constitution.
But as a consumer, the individual has the power to sue a company or service provider that broke its contractual obligations. As a citizen, the American or resident has no power to keep law enforcement from spying on his every move.
Thanks to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, we now know that agencies like the NSA went far and beyond to obtain access to data that would have been otherwise unreachable without a warrant — and not a mass warrant covering countless of innocent individuals at home and abroad.
While we’re grateful the FTC made this discovery, it’s time to complain about this type of action over why it matters. Because we are still powerless before a big, out of control government but we aren’t powerless as consumers.