The relentless advancement of technology continues to bring with it a multitude of unforeseen issues–privacy being at the forefront of those. The latest set of problems stems from potential security weakness in the myriad of smart televisions that are currently flooding the market. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is currently considering creating a report outlining privacy requirements for any smart TVs on the market. However, there are a number of factors for the FTC to consider before they elect to move forward with an official report.
In December of 2016 the FTC held a Smart TV Policy Workshop to gauge the concern of the market. Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection commented during the workshop on the “..the fundamentally different relationship…” that consumers have with their televisions today. Think back on what a television was 25 years ago and now look at the televisions being shown off during CES 2017. While both products are technically televisions, they are worlds apart. Modern televisions are not simply screens, they’re computers. Jessica Rich went on to say that “It matters whether consumers think of their smart TVs as a computer or a television … and whether they recognize that today it may be both”.
Now that televisions are essentially computers as well, the amount of data that they can record and store is growing at such an alarming rate that the FTC feels they may need to get involved. We don’t mean storing data in the sense of how many recording hours your TiVO can hold, rather we mean the television is gathering data about you as a consumer. What television shows you watch, how often you watch, when you watch, how many people are watching–the list goes on. With privacy being of paramount concern to many consumers in 2017, the television industry needs to make sure these issues are addressed head on. Since the goal of any television company is profit at the end of the day, it is up to government entities, like the FTC, to implement regulations across the industry.
The only current government regulations that affect this space are the 1984 Cable Privacy Act and the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act, which were both designed to address the needs of technology at that time. With technology where it’s at today, those laws are not sufficient to properly regulate the potential of today’s smart televisions.
Now, it is important to note that the FTC does acknowledge the importance of advertisers having access to some amount of smart TV data to help them better deliver relevant ads. Finding the appropriate balance between what is a reasonable amount of data for advertisers to have access to and what exceeds the average consumer’s reasonable expectation of privacy is the challenge that now faces the FTC.
To be clear, the FTC has not said one way or another whether they will issue a report outlining the need for legislative action. The purpose of the December 2016 workshop was to gather more information about the issue; but it is certainly an issue. This will be an important story to watch for television manufacturers and service providers alike.