Don’t Let Companies Stalk Your TV Habits

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Bearded man holding a basketball watching TV with popcorn and a cheeseburger wearing a sports jersey and a watch sitting on a couch and making a watchful gesture /

If you have a smart TV, it’s probably been stalking you … for years.

Conversations on digital data tracking aren’t new when it comes to services like social media. What you may not have heard about, though, is the hidden technology on your internet-enabled TV that’s capturing and identifying 7,200 images from your screen every hour. The Markup, a nonprofit publisher, explains that this comes out to about two photos every second.

The technology these TVs use is called automatic content recognition (ACR) and the data it collects (your data) is worth a lot of money to advertisers. According to The Markup, advertisers spent an estimated $18.6 billion on smart TV ads in 2022.

The nonprofit group Consumer Reports has been reporting on ACR and its invisible hook on consumers for nearly a decade. After the 2019 Super Bowl, Consumer Reports published an article detailing the fact that programs could use ACR technology to track when you changed the channel during commercials and could send targeted ads to your phone during the game based on your TV use.

ACR tries to identify everything you watch whether you’re streaming it, watching via cable, or playing a Blu-ray disc.

But how do these companies even get such intimate data?

How ACR works

ACR is embedded into most smart TVs and can accurately recognize and identify streaming content, including individual objects within a video. It does this by sampling and comparing the various components with existing database records.

By taking this constant stream of images from your devices, companies can determine your content preferences, average watch time, which ads you finish watching and even how you channel surf. Advertisers buy that personal data to create targeted ads. By understanding what you like, they get a better idea of what they can sell you and how they can convince you to make a purchase.

The electronics company Vizio had to settle charges with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2017 for collecting users’ data without their knowledge or consent, ultimately paying $1.5 million to the federal government and $700,000 to the State of New Jersey. After that, the FTC became very clear on the fact that companies must ask for permission before collecting users’ viewing data. But Consumer Reports says there needs to be more transparency.

How to turn off ACR

You’ll be asked a multitude of questions while setting up a new smart TV, some of which pertain to privacy. But Consumer Reports says they can be confusing and written in a way that makes it hard to know what you’re signing up for.

If you already opted into this tracking, or think you could’ve, the good news is that there are opt-out options. The Markup released a step-by-step guide to turning off the ACR software on Roku, Samsung and LG devices.

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