SALT LAKE CITY — It is a safe bet that many living rooms in Utah got a new big screen smart TV in time for Sunday night’s big game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.
And why not? Internet-connected televisions allow us to watch pretty much what we want, when we want. But there’s a problem: the FBI warns a new smart TV and its advanced features can be hacked and used to spy on you.
Tracking viewing habits
With smart TVs, consumers are often trading convenience for privacy.
TV manufacturers and streaming apps know when you watch a particular program and how long you watch. The TV tracks every app opened, every search, every binge — and that information is shared with countless third-party companies. They said it helps them personalize ads and content.
“If it makes for better TV, I mean, I don’t necessarily see the harm in that,” said TV watcher and father, Andrew Wilcox. “If there’s a camera on your TV and it can be hacked – that’s a different story.”
It can, said the FBI. Agents are actively warning consumers that a smart TV is an overlooked pathway for cyber crooks into your home.
“They could change the channels, volumes, they could even play potentially inappropriate videos for your children if they’re watching TV,” said FBI special agent Mark Roberts.
Think that’s creepy? Hackers can do much more, including using ransomware to lock a television, making it essentially unusable unless the owner pays the crooks to unlock it.
Another scenario, Roberts said, is extortion.
“If your TV has a video camera or microphone, they could gain access and potentially see into your bedroom or another room of your house and record you,” he said.
The hacker could use those recordings to demand money, with threats they will send them to people you know if you don’t pay up.
Why do smart TVs need cameras and microphones?
“There were some facial recognition things,” said Mike Bollinger of TVS Pro, a retailer specializing in pro and consumer television products.
He said the cameras allow TVs to make programming suggestions based on who is in the room. They also let you use the big screen to make video calls and they can save energy.
“If you started falling asleep, the screen would go off after a certain period of time,” Bollinger said.
If your television has voice control, it’s got a microphone embedded inside the set or in its remote.
Surreptitious listening and watching isn’t the only threat.
“Hackers are typically looking for the most unsecured device on a network,” Roberts said. “And oftentimes, people’s home computers are locked down and are updated with security patches. But TVs may be unsecured and simply sitting on your network.”
Securing your smart TV
An unsecured TV could be a back door into your internet router that cybercriminals can use to take over computers and other devices.
Experts said if you have a smart TV, there are several steps you should take to protect your home.
First, don’t rely on default settings.
“The first thing you should do is you make sure your password is unique and your own,” Bollinger said. “So, that it’s not just the same as what comes from the factory.”
Second, just like you would with your computer or smartphone, be sure your smart TV is updated to its latest software.
Roberts also advised consumers to Google the make and model of their TV to find out exactly what features it has and how those can be controlled. Include search terms like microphone, camera and privacy to find out how to change those settings.
If you want to shut the camera down but can’t figure out how – there is always an effective, old-school method the FBI recommends.
“You could put some dark tape over the camera to block somebody,” Roberts said. If you think you’ve been a victim of cybercrime, you should report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Disable The Tracking Smart TVs use an Automatic Content Recognition feature to track what you watch and make content suggestions or show ads relevant to your viewing habits. You can disable that tracking if you wish.
For Samsung: Go to “Settings,” then “Support” then select “Terms & Policies” to opt out of “Viewing Information Services” and “Internet-Based Advertising.”
For LG: Choose “General” in the “Settings” menu, click on “LivePlus” to switch it off.
For Vizio: Select “Reset & Admin” from the “System” menu, then shut off “Viewing Data”
For TVs that use Roku for their system operating system: Go to “Settings”, then “Privacy” before going to “Smart TV Experience” to switch off “Use Information for TV Inputs.”