California electronics maker Vizio will cough up $2.2m after its smart TVs spied on millions of people.
America's trade watchdog, the FTC, said today the payment will settle a complaint filed by the state of New Jersey accusing Vizio of violating privacy regulations: the biz had collected the viewing habits of 11 million television sets throughout the country without warning or permission.
According to the state attorney general's federal complaint [PDF], from February 2014 to March 2016, Vizio noted down exactly what its customers were watching and then resold all those records as summaries to third parties – which were mostly advertising companies.
The usage data was not only collected while customers were watching over-the-air or cable TV broadcasts, but also when they were watching DVDs or streaming video from websites and over-the-top services like Netflix.
Vizio harvested surveillance on people and their families so precise, it knew exactly what you were watching, second by second, and even took copies of the watched video, according to prosecutors. Additionally, we're told, Vizio resold summaries of personal information about its customers it had gathered, including age, marital status, and household income, to advertisers without consent.
"Consumers have no reason to expect that defendants engaged in second-by-second tracking of consumer viewing data by surreptitiously decoding content and sending it back to their own servers," New Jersey's complaint reads.
"Further, defendants’ representations were not sufficiently clear or prominent to alert consumers to their practices related to data collection and sale of licenses. Consumers’ viewing history is subject to certain statutory privacy protections, such as the Cable Privacy Act."
The $2.2m Vizio has to fork out will be split between the FTC and the New Jersey state Department of Consumer Affairs. The TV maker will also be required to delete any customer information it collected before March 1, when it began to notify people of the data slurping.
The settlement deal also allows the FTC to extract heavier penalties from Vizio in the future if it is found to be collecting and reselling personal data without first getting clear permission from customers.
In a statement, Vizio claimed its tellies "never paired viewing data with personally identifiable information such as name or contact information," and that "the practices challenged by the government related only to the use of viewing data in the 'aggregate' to create summary reports measuring viewing audiences or behaviors."
The hardware maker has updated its firmware to alert people to the collection of their private information, allowing them to turn this so-called feature off or on. ®