Watching You Watch

Welcome back, and I hope everyone had a restful and joyous holiday season.  I spent some of it watching TV and you probably did as well.  Of course, depending on what brand of TV you have or what apps you use, other people may have been watching you watch TV.  OK, maybe not exactly watching you, but they’re well aware of what you were watching as well as who you are.  The point today isn’t to make you more paranoid than you might already be.  It’s to  make you aware of where things are and are heading and to take a step back and ask you (and myself) if this is really where we ought to be taking our business activities. 

Let’ start with the TV.  If you own a number of brands of internet-connected TV (a smart TV), the TV is logging and reporting what you watch as well as your IP address.  That information can then have demography and purchasing information integrated from third-party databases because it isn’t hard to figure out who someone is from their IP address.  Once you connect your phone to that IP address (you do so when you attach to the home wi-fi), it’s possible to connect where you are as well as all of the other information a mobile device contains.  In other words, your purchase of, say, a Vizio TV makes you an extremely visible and valuable commodity: a consumer with known habits and an addressable means through which to access them.  I’m not hypothesizing.  If you own a Vizio and haven’t opted out, you’re being tracked.

It’s not just the TV’s themselves.  There is a lawsuit going on.  It was brought by Samba TV against its rival Alphonso. The two companies provide TV analytics and second-screen targeting capabilities.  What’s interesting to me is what it reveals about their methodologies, which involve targeting users on their mobile devices with relevant content based on their TV viewing.  How would they know what you’re watching?  One uses the set top box but the other uses the mic on your phone (who doesn’t have it with them these days) to listen to the TV.  That capability is in more than 5,000 apps, including some big ones.  You give the app permission to use your mic for some purpose (maybe to record a video) but once it has that permission, it can listen.

My question is this.  Do we really think consumers are aware of this?  If they’re not, aren’t we as an industry responsible for letting them know what’s going on?  After all, the two examples above are not part of the content value exchange we discuss sometimes (you give me your attention and I give you free content).  A consumer PAID for that TV and yet the manufacturer is continuing to monetize that customer without their knowledge.  The consumer might have an awareness that a free app is monetizing them but they presume it’s through advertising.  Do you think they know the app is listening to their TV watching and passing on a record of what’s being watched to a third party?

Here is the first of my 2016 predictions: this stuff will stop or some laws will be passed to make it stop.  Transparency of data gathering and usage will expand a lot as consumer backlash heats up.  What do you think?

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