The growing concern over online data and user privacy has been focused on tech giants like Facebook and devices like smartphones. But people’s data is also increasingly being vacuumed right out of their living rooms via their televisions, sometimes without their knowledge.
In recent years, data companies have harnessed new technology to immediately identify what people are watching on internet-connected TVs, then using that information to send targeted advertisements to other devices in their homes. Marketers, forever hungry to get their products in front of the people most likely to buy them, have eagerly embraced such practices. But the companies watching what people watch have also faced scrutiny from regulators and privacy advocates over how transparent they are being with users.
Samba TV is one of the bigger companies that track viewer information to make personalized show recommendations. The company said it collected viewing data from 13.5 million smart TVs in the United States, and it has raised $40 million in venture funding from investors including Time Warner Cable, cable operator Liberty Global and billionaire Mark Cuban.
Samba TV has struck deals with roughly a dozen TV brands — including Sony, Sharp, TCL and Philips — to place its software on certain sets. When people set up their TVs, a screen urges them to enable a service called Samba Interactive TV, saying it recommends shows and provides special offers “by cleverly recognizing onscreen content.” But the screen, which contains the enable button, does not detail how much information Samba TV collects to make those recommendations.
Samba TV declined to provide recent statistics, but one of its executives said at the end of 2016 that more than 90 percent of people opted in.
Once enabled, Samba TV can track nearly everything that appears on the TV on a second-by-second basis, essentially reading pixels to identify network shows and ads, as well as programs on Netflix and HBO and even video games played on the TV. Samba TV has even offered advertisers the ability to base their targeting on whether people watch conservative or liberal media outlets and which party’s presidential debate they watched.
The big draw for advertisers — which have included Citi and JetBlue in the past, and now Expedia — is that Samba TV can also identify other devices in the home that share the TV’s internet connection.
Samba TV, which says it has adhered to privacy guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission, does not directly sell its data. Instead, advertisers can pay the company to direct ads to other gadgets in a home after their TV commercials play, or one from a rival airs. Advertisers can also add to their websites a tag from Samba TV that allows them to determine if people visit after watching one of their commercials.
If it sounds a lot like the internet — a company with little name recognition tracking your behavior, then slicing and dicing it to sell ads — that is the point. But consumers do not typically expect the so-called idiot box to be a savant
“It’s still not intuitive that the box-maker or the software embedded by the box-maker is going to be doing this,” said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy at the advocacy group Consumers Union and a former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission. “I’d like to see companies do a better job of making that clear and explaining the value proposition to consumers.” About 45 percent of TV households in the United States had at least one smart TV at the end of 2017, IHS Markit data showed. Samba TV, which is based in San Francisco and has about 250 employees, competes against several companies, including Inscape, the data arm of the consumer electronics maker Vizio, and a startup called Alphonso.
It can be a cutthroat business. Samba has sued Alphonso for patent infringement. Last year, Vizio paid $2.2 million to settle claims by the Federal Trade Commission and the state of New Jersey that it was collecting and selling viewing data from millions of smart TVs without the knowledge or consent of set owners. In December, The New York Times reported that Alphonso was using gaming apps to gain access to smartphone microphones and listen for audio signals in TV ads and shows.
Samba TV’s language is clear, said Bill Daddi, a spokesman. “Each version has clearly identified that we use technology to recognize what’s onscreen, to create benefit for the consumer as well as Samba, its partners and advertisers,” he added.