back to article In 21st-century tech dystopia, smart TV watches you, warns Princeton privacy prof

"TVs are going down the same road that turned the web & smartphone apps into a cesspit of surveillance." So said computer scientist Arvind Narayana, associate professor at Princeton and leader of its Web Transparency and Accountability Project, in a recent lengthy Twitter thread. Narayanan pointed to three recently published …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Roku now makes more from "platform", which is mostly advertising, than player revenue

    The mathematical consequence of that is that Roku is now an ad agency that uses players as an excuse to get revenue. You never pay attention to your excuses, you only pay attention to what matters, and for Roku, what matters is the ad agencies.

    Roku is now off of my list of acceptable purchases.

    1. Mage Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Roku now makes more from "platform", which is mostly advertising, than player revenue

      Amazon is off my HW purchase list, and the Kindle NEVER has its WiFi on.

      Use a laptop to drive HDMI on a "Smart TV". Don''t connect it to WiFi or ethernet. Sony seems to have now provided a way to disable Samba (The ad info company, not Windows style shares on Linux). I'd not trust it.

      I'd not use the Google TV stick or Apple TV, Amazon Fire etc. Also Amazon "kindle app" on Tablet / Phone / PC reports everything. Only the eink Amazon and USB mass storage with WiFi/3G off is "safe". Use "Download to PC" option for a physical reader if buying Amazon ebooks. Smashwords is better, though without the big 5 publishers.

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Re: Roku now makes more from "platform", which is mostly advertising, than player revenue

        That's tantamount to one building a virtual wall around oneself, Mage, isolating oneself in past indiscrete pathways to no other temptations/treats/opportunities/threats.

        Such is a recipe for audiovisual stagnation and televisual petrification which delivers Virtual Putrefaction ...... and that's a real dumb bummer of a future gig.

        1. Bendacious

          Re: Roku now makes more from "platform", which is mostly advertising, than player revenue

          Normally I agree with everything A Man from Mars says (that I understand) but not this time. A laptop plugged into a dumb TV gives so many more options for audiovisual vibrancy and televisual wakefulness than any of those devices that Mage is isolating himself from.

          1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

            Re: Roku now makes more from "platform", which is mostly advertising, than player revenue

            Normally I agree with everything A Man from Mars says (that I understand) but not this time. A laptop plugged into a dumb TV gives so many more options for audiovisual vibrancy and televisual wakefulness than any of those devices that Mage is isolating himself from. .... Bendacious

            Those devices are in their infancy, Bendacious, and do not Smart TVs Mature over Time to Transmit, Transport, Translate and TerraPhorm a Captivating Audience with Capturing Product ..... Immaculate Virgin Core Source.

            What do you think all those system updates are doing for free if not upgrading things for whatever programs are planned in mind to be Run/Realised/Presented.

            I have to admit a Capturing Audience with Captivating Product is also a Great Source.

            :-) Both together in a Unity of Purpose would be .......... well, in a simple word, can anyone beat the breadth and depth and heights of Heavenly ..... for that's where you and IT and AI is headed. :-)

            Poe's Law Rules Applied:-)

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "I see only one way: let's de-legitimize targeted advertising as a business model," said Narayanan.

    That sounds like a forlorn hope

    Oh, I don't know. Some research showing that it does more harm than good to the advertiser might have quite an effect.

    1. LDS Silver badge

      It took time, but after all we de-legitimized most smoking as it was shown to be really dangerous. Probably what we need is some highly visible case of damages by data slurping.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Probably what we need is some highly visible case of damages by data slurping."

        They are in the tech news on an almost daily basis. The main stream media picks up on the bigger once at least once per month. But people still use TalkTalk and Experian.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          The Equifax breach was worse than anything I can recall off the top of my head from Experian. Did you mean Equifax?

          In any case, the damage caused by the Equifax breach was mostly to people who consume financial services individually or as couples - consumers getting credit for various personal purchases. They're not Equifax customers. Equifax customers are the providers of financial services.

          "People" have very little say in whether their financial-services providers use Equifax. They can ask, but there may not be any viable alternatives (for example, using a local credit union is often better than using a national bank, even if all the local credit unions insist on using Equifax); or using an alternative may be expensive because they don't offer as good a rate.

    2. ThatOne Silver badge
      Big Brother

      True, but to have any effect it would need to be really overwhelming, unquestionable, and most importantly, make the headlines and create enough buzz so even CEOs most set in their ways start wondering. Don't forget there is a whole (very rich and influential) business branch living (quite well) off this, not to mention individual marketing departments which won't relinquish power and budgets without a fight.

      A research team publishing such a paper will immediately feel the burning gaze of Google, Facebook and other billion-dollar companies on them. Their research paper will have to be strong enough to survive the millions of dollars spent to make it disappear, and the authors will need to be solid enough to be able to withstand all attempts to buy or discredit them.

      IMHO only the targeted masses can really fight this war: The advertising industry has little leverage on them (can't sue or buy them, can only try to seduce/influence them), but most important, they are the vital cog which makes the whole engine work. Without people interacting with advertisement, advertisement has no reason to be. If companies expect ad campaigns to have no, or even negative results, they obviously won't pay for them anymore. And the millions of the ad giants won't be able to do more than pay for vast seduction campaigns which might or might not work. Definitely more challenging than making disappear a small research paper which few people would had read anyway.

      1. Ugotta B. Kiddingme Silver badge

        Re: ThatOne

        "If companies expect ad campaigns to have no, or even negative results, they obviously won't pay for them anymore."

        I wish you were right. However, I disagree because the economies of scale still make it worthwhile. I NEVER answer my phone unless it's a number I recognize, yet every evening I get 10-20 robocalls mostly from the same handful of "numbers". The call volume hasn't decreased in over a year. Also, I almost NEVER watch any cable program when it is broadcast. I record them with my Tivo and use its skip button to fast forward through or completely skip commercial breaks. I only use my Roku for HBO (no commercials except for their own programming) or ESPN for out-of-market sporting events. I dislike using Roku for anything other than HBO because, unlike my Tivo, one is not able to FF or otherwise bypass commercials AFAIK. Therefore, I am only "interacting with advertisement" on a very limited basis because that's when I get more scotch/let the dog (or myself) go pee/etc.

        1. ThatOne Silver badge

          Re: Ugotta B. Kiddingme

          > I get 10-20 robocalls

          Of course, since it's a computer randomly picking from a database of harvested addresses.

          But you are focusing on the wrong people: The lowlife making those robocalls or burying you with commercials are not the ones calling the shots, remember, they are paid to do so. They would stop in a heartbeat if their clients stopped paying them for this kind of behavior.

          The ad industry needs to appeal to their clients: If you make sure nobody wants to pay them for their current methods, they will adapt. If [Big Company Marketing Dept.] decides that their advertisement campaign needs to be low-key and non-intrusive, the ad mercenaries will do just that. Their problem right now is that they are let lose and in a spiral of constant no-bounds escalation.

    3. Ugotta B. Kiddingme Silver badge

      Re: Doctor Syntax

      De-Legitimizing targeted advertising as a business model IS a forlorn hope, for the same reason that you'll never get corruption and other negatives out of politics - there's FAR too much money to be made and power to be grabbed.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    re: Pi_hole

    Now that things have been shown to bypass its controls isn't it just as simple as adding all those extra domains and IP addresses to its configuration or is that too hard for these academics?

    I'm always adding more domains to my blocklist. Google, Microsoft and Facebook are particularly adept at adding new names that are one character different from the old ones. IT is a game of cat and mouse.

    My google blocklist has grown to almost 1200 domain names. Barstewards the lot of them.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: re: Pi_hole

      Indeed and they were only >>>Simulating Pi-hole's blocking<<< Wouldn't it be cheaper/easier to actually use a real one?

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: re: Pi_hole

        Wouldn't it be cheaper/easier to actually use a real one?

        I haven't read the paper, but it might well have been methodologically unsound. For example, an application might exfiltrate more sensitive information iff an initial contact is successful.

        Simulating blocking is easy, and can be done after collecting data, by filtering data for connections that Pi-hole blocks. Then you have both the original no-blocking dataset and a simulation of the putative dataset that would have been collected had blocking been in place. Since blocking was not the object of the study, collecting data without blocking is the correct approach.

        By the same token, the GP post's complaint about "the academics" not configuring Pi-hole to block additional domains is irrelevant. That wasn't the point of the study.

  4. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Flame

    I just want a fucking display - no Smartiness whatsoever.

    And I will plug in my choice of content delivery hardware.

    Is that so hard to fucking get into their thick heads ?

    It's like fighting the 70s and 80s war over music centres and separates.

    Again.

    1. Alister Silver badge

      Re: I just want a fucking display - no Smartiness whatsoever.

      And I will plug in my choice of content delivery hardware.

      Like an Amazon Fire stick, or Roku, or Apple TV?

    2. DJV Silver badge

      Re: I just want a fucking display - no Smartiness whatsoever.

      I think I'll just stick with my 10 year old non-smart, non-internet enabled TV until it bites the dust.

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I just want a fucking display - no Smartiness whatsoever.

    Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain? Don't plug it in to your network and don't give it your wireless password. Also means they can't sneak in an 'upgrade' without telling you. Works well for my PVR and I intend to do the same when I'm eventually forced to buy a smart TV.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain?

      So you're paying an extra £500 (or whatever) "smart tax".

      Fuck that too.

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain?

        Perhaps you'd be kind enough to point out a TV sold now which isn't "smart"?

        When I was looking two or three years back they were hard to find, I expect they're impossible to find today. (No, it's not connected to the Internet.)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain?

          You could just buy a monitor and separate sound system.

          1. Martin an gof Silver badge

            Re: Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain?

            Non-smart TVs are very hard to find these days - at least at the sorts of sizes that are now common in the living room (i.e. 36" and upwards). I have always had a separate sound system so that's not an issue (and TV speakers are still - as always since they decided to make TVs as thin as possible - pathetic) but for a truly non-smart screen in a large size you might actually be looking these days at commercial displays, which are a darned sight more expensive than normal TVs.

            If that does interest you, then I can thoroughly recommend Panasonic as I have more than a few at work :-)

            M.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Non-smart TVs are very hard to find these days

              You can find some reasonably priced largish commercial displays - I guess the sort of thing you might get in a business reception area or used for displaying product info in a retail environment. Last year I bought a 32in Hanspree instead of a TV for under £200, but there was a 40in model as well.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Non-smart TVs are very hard to find these days

                I just spotted a 32" TV, non-smart, for $165. The last 40" 4K TV I bought, about six months ago, was about $300, also non-smart.

          2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain?

            "You could just buy a monitor and separate sound system."

            Our TV these days is mostly used as a monitor with inbuilt sound. Even the Beeb programmes are mostly watched from the Myth box for time-shifting. In fact, for some odd reason the colour reproduction from that is somewhat better than direct reception. The other major input is a Pi running OSMC.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain?

          "When I was looking two or three years back they were hard to find, I expect they're impossible to find today"

          Not necessarily...

          Just checked a local electronics chain's web site.

          Found a 55", non smart, 4K (3840 x 2160) TV with 3 x HDMI, 1 x RF, 1 x USB, composite and component video inputs, optical digital audio out, and VESA mount compatibility for $500... about $700 less than a smart TV of identical size and similar specifications from the same manufacturer, with both on sale.

          You could get a 75" smart TV for $1,500, if you thought you could quarantine it reliably, also on sale.

      2. Mephistro Silver badge

        Re: Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain?

        Regarding the "smart tax": Nowadays the cost of the "smart" hardware is ridiculously small. Think of SoCs. I doubt that this adds more than €30 to the final cost of a smart tv.

        The issue here is that TV makers basically don't update their software, except to improve cyberstalkicustomer's data collection. Security was thrown overboard at the beginning of the process, and usually you can count the # of security updates with the fingers of head.

        Using a safe external device(e.g. a Raspberry Pi+ Linux + reproduction software) is a big improvement, not only in security but also in usability.

        I wonder if the EU will do something about this, as the above said TV makers are clearly wiping their backsides with GDPR laws.

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Hmm, isn't that trivial to obtain?

          I doubt that this adds more than €30

          NEC makes a range of commercial displays to which a Raspberry Pi Compute Module can be added.

          Point proven.

          M.

    2. DougS Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Don't worry, they'll "fix" that for you

      When TVs start shipping with built in 5G so there isn't any way for the TV's "owner" to opt out of or prevent data collection.

      The 5G will be only for their use, not for yours, so they'll use a built-in eSIM and get a bulk rate from a carrier.

  6. Chris G Silver badge

    My smart TV can connect to anything

    If I let it. As it is, I have it connected to a Hotbird dish and nothing else since that provides more than enough TV for me, I probably average less than 1 hour a week looking at the goggle box.

    I do get untargetted ads if I watch a youtube vid on my phone but otherwise I have little idea of what's for sale in the world without going to a shop,or looking for a specific item.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's like they *want* you to pirate ...

    better off torrenting and just playing files via an Rpi ....

  8. mark l 2 Silver badge

    White the rise in ads and tracking on TVs is worrying, my main reason for not wanting a 'smart TV' is that they rarely get updates to the OS or pre-installed apps so become a security concern after a while.

    I know a few people who have smart TVs from only a few years ago and virtually not of the apps work any more due to the versions of the apps being too old and no updates to the software available.

    My current TV is just a dumb display with a miracast dongle connected so I can steam content from my phone to the TV screen. I prefer that as I my phone does get updates to both the OS and apps. Although not happy that the All4 app doesn't support playing on a 'second screen' so won't let you steam from the phone to your TV. But Iplayer, Youtube and Amazon prime video all work fine.

  9. romandog

    It is what it is

    If you want to watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it, the TV has to be connected. It's 2020 after all. Nothing like Pro sports or a contemporary action flick on a highend 65" SMART TV - with external Audio system.

    I dropped cable and now stream exclusively saving $100/mo.

    Another viable solution -with no monthly fees- may be Free to Air (FTA) satellite TV. Buy the dish and the FTA receiver for less than $500 total and get free unencrypted TV.

    1. Palpy

      "If you want to watch what you want ...TV has to be connected."

      Baloney. I watch what I want -- movies, mostly -- when I want to. Which is not all that often, mind you. I use a simple DVD player, simple netbook running Mint, a small library on a portable hard drive. No smarty-pants TV.

      I had the unfortunate experience of seeing unfiltered TV in a motel room while on a trip with a friend. What a mass of foul garbage. The "drama" appeared to be an attempt at psychic and emotional emasculation. The ads were worse -- stupid, stultifying, numbing. I finally put in earplugs, ignored the TV, and propped my laptop on the bed.

      I choose what I watch, not some sniggering perv of a program planner. But the audio-visual diarrhea excreted by those sniggering pervs may be what is considered "entertainment" in 2020, I don't know.

      Whatever. I watch what I want.

  10. Blackjack

    And to think...

    People mocks me for still using an old LCD TV from the year 2000, that thing doesn't even have Bluetooth.

    It still works! Dunno were the controller is but thankfully back then TVs still included buttons.

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