Five smart TVs tested for security, privacy issues

As more and more smart TVs are sold worldwide, consumers should be aware of the risks associated with this technology.

smart tv security privacy

Consumer Union, a US-based nonprofit organization dedicated to unbiased product testing, has conducted a privacy and security evaluation of five smart TVs from the most widely sold TV brands in the US:

  • Samsung UN49MU8000, running the company’s Tizen OS
  • LG 49UJ7700, which uses LG’s webOS
  • TCL 55P605, which uses the Roku streaming platform
  • Sony XBR-49X800E, running Google’s Android TV OS
  • Vizio P55-E1 SmartCast TV, which uses Google’s Chromecast platform.

Security issues

The testers found that remote attackers can take control of the Samsung and TCL TVs by exploiting flaws in the setups, allowing them to change channels, change volume levels, open disturbing content, and so on.

Samsung smart TVs attempt to ensure that only authorized applications can control the television, but the mechanism they use to ensure that applications have previously been authorized is flawed and exploitable, researchers with Disconnect, a maker of privacy-enhancing software for consumers and Consumer Reports partner, discovered.

TCL’s problem stems from the fact that the Roku platform has an unsecured remote control API enabled by default.

“To become a victim of a real-world attack, a TV user would need to be using a phone or laptop running on the same WiFi network as the television, and then visit a site or download a mobile app with malicious code. That could happen, for instance, if they were tricked into clicking on a link in a phishing email or if they visited a site containing an advertisement with the code embedded,” Consumer Reports noted.

Privacy issues

When it comes to user privacy, all of the tested TVs have been found wanting.

“Every smart TV we evaluated asked for permission to collect viewing data and other kinds of information,” the testers noted.

“But we found that it’s not always easy to understand what you’re agreeing to as you proceed through the setup process. And if you decline permissions, you can lose a surprising amount of functionality.”

In general, consumers will either permit the collection of viewing data and it being shared with third-parties or won’t get recommendations. Also, if they say no to a basic privacy policy, they won’t be able to stream anything web-based services such as Netflix or Amazon. In fact, with Sony XBR-49X800E, consumers must agree to a privacy policy and terms of service just to be able to complete the setup of the TV!

Vendors say that consumers can prevent any data sharing by not connecting the smart TV to the Internet but, again, that makes it impossible to stream content from it. Essentially, you get a “dumb” TV.

“If you do buy a new smart TV, decide whether you want to block the collection of viewing data. If so, pay close attention during setup. There, you can agree to the basic privacy policy and terms of service — which still triggers a significant amount of data collection — while declining ACR [automatic content recognition],” the publication advises.

For those who have already set up the TV but would now like to restrict the collection of data, resetting the TV to factory settings is a good first step, followed by a careful setup process and tweaking of deeply buried settings.

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