Smart TVs have emerged as a significant privacy threat, competing with smart speakers, to transform consumers’ habits, behaviors and preferences into marketing opportunities.

This month, two Democratic Senators addressed a letter to the chairman of the FTC detailing their concerns. The controversy centers on Samba TV, a major player in the provision of digital services, which is quite transparent about its intention to “analyze what viewers are watching, determine how many connected devices they have in the house and then target them with ads.”

Estimates of the number of smart TVs in US homes range from 1/3 of households to half to 2/3 – but as we noted in our report, Clearly Opaque, consumers will have their ability to buy non-smart TVs eroded over time. Samba TV, having contracted with leading brands such as Sony, Sharp, TCL and Phillips, is now harvesting data from over 13.5 million units in the US.

Once enabled, Samba TV can track nearly everything that appears on the screen on a second-by-second basis, essentially reading pixels to identify network shows and ads, as well as programs on HBO and even video games. 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 […] is that Samba TV can also identify other devices in the home that share the TV’s internet connection.

An overwhelming majority of owners enable Samba TV when presented with the opt-in screen. It’s safe to assume that few people read the terms or privacy policy (a combined 10,000+ words), and so it’s likely many purchasers are not aware of the degree to which they are being surveilled. Some older sets are now springing Samba TV as a bonus surprise when auto-updating the software.

A lack of Smart TV regulation – or sufficient omnibus privacy regulation – is allowing such digital services, backed by investors including Time Warner, to collect data from a consumer base that is rather underinformed about the privacy risks. As reported by the New York Times, Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University and a former technology adviser at the Federal Communications Commission, observed:

“In terms of practical things the F.T.C. could do, one is filing additional enforcement actions, which, in addition to curtailing individual companies’ practices, can send a powerful ‘clean up your act’ message to industries.”