Associate Professor Ramon Lobato and Alexa Scarlata are researchers in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, whose area of expertise is consumer issues in smart TVs, streaming services and TV operating systems.
Smart TVs have opened up an exciting world of content for Australian consumers, offering endless movies and TV shows across an ever-growing collection of streaming apps.
Two thirds of Australian adults now have a smart TV at home, and old-fashioned 'dumb TVs' are now difficult to find in retail stores.
This new age of interactive television comes with privacy risks for consumers. Smart TVs, like other connected devices, are powerful data-harvesting machines built for the efficient collection of your personal information.
One technology used by TV manufacturers, automated content recognition (ACR), is being deployed in smart TVs to track and monetise your viewing data.
What is ACR?
ACR refers to your TV's ability to recognise what you are watching at any given time.
This is achieved through a technology called video fingerprinting, which samples pixels to determine a unique pattern. This pattern is then checked against a massive database of content.
Within a few seconds, many ACR-enabled TVs can identify the specific piece of content on display – whether you are binging Squid Game on Netflix, watching a tennis match on broadcast TV, or playing Minecraft through your Xbox.
The purpose of ACR is to build up a detailed picture of your viewing behaviour. This data trove grows over time into a record of your tastes, viewing habits, and the different ads you have been exposed to (or avoided). This is valuable information for advertisers.
ACR data can also be combined with third-party data, sourced from data brokers, to link your viewing habits to other data including your income, past purchases, and other attributes.
This information can potentially be used to target you on an assumption of your sexuality, political leanings, income level, location, and various other attributes
One TV manufacturer claims to work with "hundreds of third-party data companies" to analyse users' viewing, ad exposures, app subscriptions, activations, and cancellations – and to target ads on this basis.
The implication here is that what you watch tells advertisers about what kind of person you are.
If you binged the last season of RuPaul's Drag Race, of if you watch Sky After Dark religiously, this information can potentially be used to target you on an assumption of your sexuality, political leanings, income level, location, and various other attributes.
Should you be worried about ACR?
The use of ACR by TV manufacturers is little discussed in Australia. While ACR has attracted attention overseas, many consumers here are unaware of the amount of data they are handing over every time they turn on their TV.
Some people might shrug their shoulders and say they have nothing to hide. Others might already be familiar with the idea that streaming apps like Netflix track our activity to personalise recommendations, and be quite comfortable with this.
However, the use of ACR in smart TVs is different for the following reasons:
- The primary purpose of ACR is to enable targetted advertising rather than to improve user experience.
- On an ACR-enabled smart TV your viewing data is potentially being collected twice – first by the apps you use, and then by the TV (not to mention their advertising partners).
- Some ACR companies use your smart TV to identify other connected devices in the household and to send ads to those devices. This explains why ads often seem to follow you from one device to another.
- ACR can be used to power annoying pop-up ads that appear during live programming.
- ACR creates a modest but unnecessary increase in the TV's CPU load, and potentially its electricity consumption and data costs. For example, Samsung TVs take screenshots every 500 milliseconds.
Given this context, ACR needs to be understood not as an interactive or interest-based feature but as an extension of online tracking into the medium of television.
Are there any benefits to ACR?
In their defence, manufacturers point to several consumer benefits of ACR.
The installation of ACR on a TV set may make it more affordable. This is because manufacturers earn additional revenue from ACR-enabled ad services that can be used to subsidise the cost of a TV to the consumer.
In our view, consumers need to think carefully about these trade-offs and whether they are comfortable with the value exchange
ACR can also potentially be used to deliver more precise TV-level recommendations, offering a solution to the fragmented nature of individual app recommendations, or to power additional features such as info overlays or subtitles.
In our view, consumers need to think carefully about these trade-offs and whether they are comfortable with the value exchange. While there are potential upsides to ACR, we believe that many consumers are giving away a lot of value for relatively little benefit. So can you get rid of it?
Can you disable ACR on your TV?
Most TVs sold in Australia allow users to opt out of ACR. This can be done during setup or later via the settings.
Unfortunately, opting out is often harder than it sounds because manufacturers use confusing language to describe ACR and may also bury the relevant options deep in the settings.
For example, Samsung refers to its proprietary ACR system as "Viewing Information Services" while LG calls theirs "Live Plus". Other manufacturers including Sony and Panasonic deploy a third-party ACR system called Samba Interactive TV – which markets itself as an interactive feature for enhanced recommendations but is really a tracking app for advertisers.
We recommend that all consumers check their TV's settings and disable ACR unless they feel comfortable about sharing their viewing with the manufacturer and its advertising partners
Faced with these confusing options, and in a rush to get their new TV set up and working, many consumers will simply click "Accept" and be on their way.
But we recommend that all consumers check their TV's settings and disable ACR unless they feel comfortable about sharing their viewing with the manufacturer and its advertising partners.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.