Smart TVs Privacy Issues: How to Protect Yourself

Smart TVs Privacy Issues protection

As smart products continually become increasingly popular, many people are raising questions about the privacy and security issues that come along with them. Theories continue to spread about things such as Alexa listening to everything or baby monitors becoming hacked.

Due to the visual and consumerist nature of smart TVs, they offer a variety of services that other smart home products can not offer.

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Because of customizability and user intent, smart TVs are prone to privacy issues. These privacy issues are prevalent, both with the companies who make them and with hackers having incentives and options to infiltrate the device.

With all these privacy concerns comes a need for consumers to be conscious of what they are buying, as well as what they agree to when they are setting up these devices. 

As a consumer, I want you to be as prepared as possible for potential security leaks with your smart home devices. Here I have included a breakdown of the most common features and issues that occur when owning a smart TV, as well as a large list of tips and tricks to help you and your loved ones stay protected and secure.

At the end of the day, a well-informed Smart TV owner can become “smarter” than any potential hackers and ensure his or her own security.

Is My Smart TV Getting Hacked?

Although there is not yet a foolproof method of knowing whether or not you are being hacked, there are plenty of obvious indicators. Common signs that a smart TV is being hacked are: 

  • Volume changing
  • Channels changing at random
  • Apps being viewed when you have not been using them

Despite these more obvious indicators, sometimes you may never be able to tell if a hacker has been on your TV. This can be frightening and alarming to many people leaving them to question the cost-benefit analysis of this device. However, while there are risks involved with hacking, you can rest assured that there are ways to prevent this and to ensure your own control over your Smart TV.

To provide you with the ability to remain in control of who accesses your device, I am going to explore common features of Smart TVs and then will discuss how you can prevent 99.9% of all hackers.

Common Features Included With a Smart TV (And Their Associated Issues)

smart tv apps issues
Smart TV features and privacy issues

Before I dive further, I want to make sure I cover some of the features that make up your (potential) Smart TV. Each of these features has the potential of having a security issue of its own, so we will cover those in-depth. 

1. Wifi and Applications

As a most basic function, smart TVs offer both connectivities to WiFi and a broad range of applications. This makes them similar to smartphones and tablets, capable of connecting you more to the growing internet world.

It is the most important feature because while television providers continue to keep popularity, streaming apps such as Netflix, Sling, and Hulu are taking up larger and larger parts of the market share.

Amazon Prime even offers free Thursday night football to its subscribers in an attempt to appeal to an audience that would typically find value in standard cable-type services.

Read: How to fix WiFi disconnecting from smart TVs

WiFi/Application Issues

Wifi is the top way hackers are able to get into your smart TV, while the next most popular option is through a third-party application. 

Anytime you are connecting to the internet, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to potential issues. Of course, the mere act of connecting is not going to be an issue for you. It is when private data is able to be accessed that connecting to the internet world can be a true danger to smart TV users. 

In 2018, Consumer Reports found that over a million smart TVs were able to be controlled by outside hackers. Watch the video.

Consumer Reports Finds TV Security Flaw | Consumer Reports
Watch this video on YouTube.

You can read the full article here. That means that, at the time of publication of this article, most TVs in people’s homes are still included in this statistic. 

Unfortunately, Smart TV security has failed to progress at as fast a rate as the consumer interest in purchasing the device.

While the technology has made some (minimal) improvements over the last two years, it has failed to improve in the dramatic way necessary to prevent any hacking attempts. This is just one of the many reasons it is currently up to the consumer to protect himself or herself from being hacked.

2. Voice Assistance

One of the next most popular features of a smart TV is the capability of accepting and processing voice commands. This feature is beneficial to anyone living a normal life and performing basic household functions while watching TV.

Having the Smart TV assist you during dinner and while walking around the house or taking care of your children is a huge benefit to many people who purchase these devices.

Voice Assistance Issues

While it can be a nifty feature, voice assistance offers an unseeable vulnerability on your TV. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the ability for any smart device to hear you, especially on command, allows an opportunity for your entire conversation to be tracked 24 hours a day, or as long as your device is plugged in.

Although many companies claim this does not happen by them, there is still the potential that you signed off on a policy you did not know or recognize, or that a hacker was able to tap into it through the WiFi connectivity. 

3. Connecting to Other Devices

Another popular feature with smart TVs is the ability to pair them with other smart devices. Google Home and Amazon Echo’s are able to be added to smart TVs, giving a more robust voice command.

Doorbell and security cameras, such as Nest, are able to be added so you can view them without getting up from your couch or having to turn on another device. Heck, you can even add a robot vacuum to the mix if your heart so desires. 

Other Device Issues

Smart TVs are already a vulnerable technology, but when you include them in a network of possible threats, the odds of them being able to get hacked increases.

Much like third-party applications can lead to risks, separate devices that have control of your television also produce a risk. On top of this, if your TV is the most vulnerable device, having this web of interlocked devices will open your other devices up to being hacked by association.

4. WebCams

A less common feature, though still popular, is a camera installed at the top. This is similar to one found on most laptops today. Although occasionally practical, this feature is deemed unnecessary by most consumers.

WebCams have the potential to be hacked and are one of the more obvious features which consumers seek to protect from being hacked.

WebCam Issues 

The most obvious one on this list, WebCams provide a level of potential intimacy that other features do not. If a WebCam is hacked, the hacker can have access to the visual and audio displayed within your home.

WebCams have been known to be hacked for years, potentially gaining most awareness through the popular movie, Snowden, based on a true story. 

If a hacker has access to the Smart TV, they are able to turn on the WebCam without alerting the user and are therefore able to look into people’s houses. Typically, this level of intimate threat is concerning enough for a user to attempt some method of prevention.

How Do I Prevent My Smart TV From Being Hacked – Or Spying On Me

smart tv privacy protectionTo prevent both companies and hackers from getting into and spying on your Smart TV and private information, here are the best tips to help you.

1. Pay Attention During Setup

This is the first in a list of ways to prevent both hackers and companies from getting into your personal info and life. The policies listed (and typically asking for the consumer to sign off on) are going to forewarn you of the company’s desires and will tip you towards extra security measures. 

2. Disconnect From the Wifi

Whenever you are not using the Smart TV, a sure way to prevent both companies from collecting data and hackers from getting in is to disable the WiFi feature. This can usually be done with a simple toggle in the automatic settings, making it an efficient way to prevent issues when you are not actively using the device. 

3. Change Your TV’s Settings

During setup, some features may just be an agreement, but usually there are a variety of extra settings beyond the simple checkboxes these present.

To be sure that this is the case, make sure to thoroughly look through your smart TV’s privacy and security settings seeing if there are extra measures to be taken. If there are, you will have the ability to do these directly from the settings option.

4. Use Difficult Passwords

One of the amazing things about passwords is that they can be overly simplistic, or incredibly complicated to crack with simple changes. Although it can be annoying to find passwords that are 8-12 characters in length, need a capital letter, number, and symbol – it makes them myriads of times harder to crack.

For example, a random 10-character password would take a system upwards of 50 years to crack. If you use the same password for every device, it is especially important to use a difficult password so as to increase the security in your home exponentially.

5. Only Download Trusted Applications

With an app store that almost anyone with internet access could upload to, it is difficult to always stay safe. An easy way to protect your device and yourself is to only download applications that are known and well trusted.

You should not have any issues with this feature as long as you stay away from un-reviewed applications that are made by companies you do not recognize.

6. Do Not Plug In USBs That Could Be Compromised

As tempting as it may be, “jailbroken” tv streaming boxes can do a lot of damage. Not only can they cause viruses, but they are also a security threat that allows data collection on your Smart TV.

If the person who sets it up and selling it is conniving, they may also have installed software that will allow them access to your device. 

7. Cover the Smart TV Camera

Although this is simple, if your Smart TV has a WebCam, it is always a good idea to cover it. When being actively used, it can be a helpful feature, but any other time it is just a liability for you and your family’s security. 

8. Turn Off the Voice Control

If you are someone who uses voice control regularly, this may not be as easy of a suggestion to follow. However, any time you are going to be going an extended period without using voice control, it can be incredibly smart (and easy!) to just turn it off to ensure there is no company tailoring advertisements to your conversations.

9. Make Sure Your Router Is Protected

As the entryway to all your devices, this should be done whether or not the TV you own is “smart”. Any experienced hacker who can enter your network through an unprotected router is going to have a pretty easy time controlling your devices after breaching this initial access point. 

10. Wired vs. Wireless Connection

If there is an option to do so, connect your TV via ethernet, which is less vulnerable than its wireless counterpart. Through the elimination of one access point, the user is adding another layer of security for his or her device.

11. Make Sure Your TV is Up-to-Date

This advice is not suggesting that you go out and buy the newest smart TV each year. Rather, as a smart TV is similar to any other smart device, it is able to go through routine updates for increased security and any bug fixes.

It is important to make sure that your smart TV has gone through the most recent updates in order to increase security measures which have been recently added.

12. Run Antivirus

While some new smart TVs come equipped with antivirus software, it is important to acquire it if yours does not and to scan your device with antivirus protection regularly. 

While all of these tips are helpful for the consumer to know, it does lead to more in-depth questions about the general nature of smart TVs. I am going to explore these more to help you get a better understanding of the whole process and setup which accompanies smart devices.

Why Do Smart TVs Have Cameras? 

You may not have considered this question prior to reading this article, but when you think about it, it seems odd that a TV would need a WebCam at all. So, why does it? 

Smart TVs have cameras for a variety of reasons including but not limited to: certain video games, application usage, and some business features. The most common of these is for applications, such as Skype, that allows you to communicate around the internet-accessible world via live video chat.

The next most common of these reasons listed is the business purposes option, which makes sense. Having lots of meetings in an increasingly remote workforce can lead to the need for cameras being installed. 

Thankfully, most modern TVs are not including cameras, as they led to vulnerabilities and they are a less important feature to most users. It is important to verify whether or not yours does and to take security measures appropriately if so.

Can Smart TVs Get a Virus? 

Smart TVs are able to get viruses in the same way as computers, although it is much less common. Today, many smart TVs come installed with antivirus security software.

Even if you are using a TV that does not have virus protection and scanning, you can download something like McAfee for TV software as you would another application to your smart TV.  

Is My Smart TVs Software Being Updated?

In general, it is safe to assume that your smart TV’s software is being updated automatically. Many of the modern smart TVs have the option already included to push updates in the settings feature at the initial setup of your device.

Although this is not required, it is generally accepted as both safe and convenient in order to have the most recent updates for security automatically updating. 

If you do not want the company to have access to push updates, that is understandable. You are entitled to your own settings preferences. Simply be sure to check regularly for updates so that you are able to take advantage of the most recent fixes they provide. 

Does Brand Matter for Smart TV Privacy?

Which brand you purchase can definitely play a role in the safety of a smart TV. Brands are constantly being tested and changing, but at the time of this article, there are some clear ones that should be inspected before purchasing, as they can leave you more prone to vulnerabilities. 

Under the most fire is the Samsung smart TV brand, which has proven multiple times over the last few years that it is one of the least difficult smart TVs to hack.

Consumer Reports and Consumer Union have both found, in the last two years, the Samsung brand smart TV had multiple vulnerabilities that opened it up to hackers. Since then, Samsung has reportedly addressed the issue with updates, but I would still hold off until these concerns have been time-tested for a while. 

Another company that has run into issues with privacy is Vizio. Although this company has pretty secure TVs from hackers, Vizio has been sued for selling user information to assist in the creation of targeted advertisements for device users. Since the lawsuit occurred, Vizio has settled and made payouts and has also reported to fixing their issue. 

How Can I Prevent Bad Privacy Policies on My Smart TV? 

Unfortunately, privacy policies and user agreements are areas that companies have gotten incredibly good at getting customers to agree to, knowingly or unknowingly, give out their personal data.

With smart TVs in particular, some TVs will not let the user complete the setup process before agreeing to many of their policies. So, the user is more or less forced to agree if he or she wishes to begin using the device that he or she just purchased.

While this is not illegal, it is a tricky move that can get users to agree to many policies they would prefer not to agree to simply over excitement to use their new product.

While the user could just disconnect the WiFi, this is not a preferable solution because it essentially leaves him or her with a “dumb” tv – exactly what he or she had before buying the new one. 

You can protect yourself from bad privacy policies by making sure to do your research ahead of time (just like you are doing by reading this article).

Check with friends and family, as well as online reviews, to see if there are ways to opt-out of any data collection happening with specific companies you are interested in. Knowing what you are getting into before trying to set up a potentially risky Smart TV is always a good thing to do.

Are Smart TVs More Vulnerable Than Other Smart Home Devices?

Yes and no. While the technology on Smart TVs is not usually more susceptible to hacks than video cameras, baby monitors, and voice-controlled speakers, smart TVs add a level of information that is easier to monitor and sell, thus more intriguing and desirable to hackers. 

Advanced Content Recognition (ACR) is commonly turned on for each smart TV. This helps the TV understand your watching patterns and can suggest movies, shows, and even applications to you. While this is nice for finding similar shows to what you traditionally like, this information is often also sold to show what advertisements you receive.

The targeted ads industry is constantly looking to purchase any information about users, in order to better appeal to your interests.

The other aspect of smart TVs that make them more vulnerable than other smart home devices is the applications. While the normal Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon streaming services may be safe, once you begin getting more applications your risk of getting hacked greatly increases.

Any “free movie” applications that are not from reliable sources could cause you to download viruses or give information to other, malicious people.

What to Do if Your Smart TV Gets Hacked?

If you are looking at this article because you have already fallen prey to a Smart TV hack of some sort, do not fret. You are not out for the count forever.

It is important, though, to take action immediately to prevent further damage to security threats against you and your information. If you are aware that your Smart TV has been hacked, it is advisable to take the following actions:

  1. Begin by conducting a factory reset to your device. In order to wipe the possibility of further hacking, it will be important to completely reset your Smart TV. This will rid your device of all stored information. While this can be a hassle for the user (as you likely have saved settings and information for convenience purposes), it is necessary in order to be sure that any potential risks are combated.
  2. Install antivirus software. As previously discussed, it will be important to install software that manages bugs and potential threats to security. By installing antivirus software on your device, you are adding an extra layer of protection against potential hacking threats. Additionally, it is suggested to set the antivirus software to automatically scan your device rather than having to remember to manually scan for protection.
  3. Change the passwords to your account information. If a hacker was able to enter into your Smart TV, it will be important to prevent this from happening again. By changing your passwords to a higher level of security, there is less likelihood that this hacker will be able to access your information again. A few suggestions would include capitalizing a letter, adding a number or symbol, and changing the base of the password entirely. 
  4. Add any additional security measures previously discussed which you were not doing prior to the hacking. If your Smart TV device has been hacked, it will be important to review the section of this article titled, “How Do I Prevent My Smart TV From Being Hacked – Or Spying On Me,” to gain full insight into various precautions you can take for the future. These tips go further in-depth on a variety of ways to take precautionary measures against hackers.

By following these tips and the above-listed security advice, you are likely to have much more confidence in the limited possibility of threats against you and your family’s information.

Knowing you are in control of your Smart TV device provides comfort, peace of mind, and power to enjoy your device without the worry created by hackers.