Your smart TV knows what you're watching

The Markup looks at the software on smart TVs that tracks what you're watching and explains how to switch it off.

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illustration concept of pixels of data on screen being recorded

Anson Chan // The Markup

If you bought a new smart TV during any of the holiday sales, there's likely to be an uninvited guest watching along with you. The most popular smart TVs sold today use automatic content recognition (ACR), a kind of ad surveillance technology that collects data on everything you view and sends it to a proprietary database to identify what you're watching and serve you highly targeted ads. The software is largely hidden from view, and it's complicated to opt out. Many consumers aren't aware of ACR, let alone that it's active on their shiny new TVs. If that's you, and you'd like to turn it off, The Markup is going to show you how.

First, a quick primer on the tech: ACR identifies what's displayed on your television, including content served through a cable TV box, streaming service, or game console, by continuously grabbing screenshots and comparing them to a massive database of media and advertisements. Think of it as a Shazam-like service constantly running in the background while your TV is on.

These TVs can capture and identify 7,200 images per hour, or approximately two every second. The data is then used for content recommendations and ad targeting, which is a huge business; advertisers spent an estimated $18.6 billion on smart TV ads in 2022, according to market research firm eMarketer. 

For anyone who'd rather not have ACR looking over their shoulder while they watch, we've put together a guide to turning it off on three of the most popular smart TV software platforms in use last year. Depending on the platform, turning off ACR took us between 10 and 37 clicks.

Roku

Roku OS is the most popular smart TV operating system in the US, running on the company's streaming media devices and TVs, as well as some TCL, Hisense, Philips, and Sharp televisions. It took 11 to 24 clicks to turn off Roku's ACR system, called "Smart TV Experience," which is only bundled with TVs and not Roku streaming sticks. Roku offers users the ability to turn off targeted advertising and opt out of third-party data sharing through an online account, but turning off ACR is available only on the TV set itself.

How to Turn Off Roku's "Smart TV Experience"

  1. On your TV's home screen, select the Settings menu.
  2. Under the Settings menu, navigate to and select the Privacy option.
  3. Select the Smart TV Experience option.
  4. Uncheck the Use info from TV inputs option to turn off ACR.

Users can also opt out of seeing personalized ads from their Roku home screen. The same number of ads will still appear but will not be based on user data.

  1. On the home screen, select the Settings menu.
  2. Under the Settings menu, navigate to and select the Privacy option.
  3. Under privacy, select the Advertising option.
  4. Uncheck Personalized ads. A pop-up will appear. Confirm Don't personalize my ads.

BONUS: Opt out online through your Roku account

Roku provides a relatively easy process to manage privacy settings online. The online privacy hub does not include an opt-out for ACR but does include options to limit the use, sharing, and sale of your personal information.

  1. Sign in to your Roku account.
  2. Under the Account header, select Privacy settings (or navigate directly there using this link).
  3. Under Ads personalization, click on Manage personalized ads to manage ad personalization settings.
  4. Click the switch button under Personalized ads, and in the pop-up, confirm the selection by clicking on the Don't personalize my ads button. (Beware the dark pattern: The confirmation button blends in with the background, while the purple cancel button stands out.)
  5. Navigate back to Privacy settings.
  6. Under US privacy opt-outs, click on Manage US privacy controls to manage how data collected is shared and used.
  7. Toggle the Do not share or sell my personal information option.
  8. Toggle the Limit the use of my sensitive personal information option.

Samsung

Samsung is the most popular TV manufacturer in the world. It took 10 to 37 clicks to turn off ACR, which Samsung calls "Viewing information services." If you've connected your television to a Samsung account, you can opt out of ACR and other ad targeting online as well.

How to Turn Off Samsung's "Viewing Information Services"

  1. Navigate to the home screen by pressing the Home button.
  2. Navigate left to the sidebar menu.
  3. In the sidebar menu, select the Privacy Choices option.
  4. Select the Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy option.
  5. Ensure the Viewing Information Services checkbox is unchecked.
  6. Turn off ad targeting. Underneath the Viewing Information Services checkbox, uncheck Interest-Based Advertisements Services U.S. Privacy Notice.
  7. Select the OK option box at the bottom of the screen to confirm changes to turn off ACR (and targeted advertising if you unchecked it).

BONUS: Opt out online through your Samsung account

If your TV is connected to a Samsung account, you can opt out of both ACR and personalized ads online.

  1. Navigate to the Samsung account homepage.
  2. Sign in into the account used on your Samsung smart TV.
  3. At the top menu, click on the Privacy tab to navigate to the privacy dashboard (or click directly on the link).
  4. Click on the Customization Service menu option.
  5. At the bottom of the page, toggle the Viewing Information option under the TV heading to turn off ACR.
  6. Toggle the Customization Service option to turn off data collection on all device data, including Samsung mobile devices if they are connected to the same account as your TV.
  7. Navigate back to the privacy dashboard.
  8. Select the Improve personalized ads with Samsung account data menu option.
  9. Toggle Improve personalized ads with Samsung account data to turn off targeted ads.

The option to opt out of third-party data sharing or sales is accessed through a separate webpage from the privacy hub and requires you to input your state and zip code.

  1. Navigate to Samsung's privacy rights page.
  2. Scroll down and select the CREATE REQUEST option.
  3. Click the blue SELECT button under the Consumer header.
  4. Select your state and input your zip code and hit SUBMIT.
  5. Under the Data Linked to Your Samsung account header, click the blue SELECT button.
  6. Log in to the Samsung account connected to your Smart TV.
  7. Under the Select your privacy right header, select the Do Not Sell or Share (Opt-out of Targeted Ads) option.
  8. Check the Select All box by the Please Select App and/or Service header.
  9. Select the blue NEXT button.
  10. On the Review & Submit Your Request page, scroll to the bottom and select the blue SUBMIT button.
  11. Retain the ticket number for review. You'll also receive an email confirmation with the ticket number. Samsung says it can take up to 45 days for the request to receive a response. You can return to the privacy rights page to look up the status of your ticket. 

LG

LG requires users to accept all the user agreements and terms of service to use any of the television's smart features. This includes agreements for viewing information, voice assistants, and cross-device advertising.

LG calls its ACR-powered content recommendation system "Live Plus." It took 27 clicks to turn off "Live Plus." LG does not offer a way to limit ACR and other tracking through an online account.

How to Turn Off LG's "Live Plus"

  1. Navigate to the home screen by pressing the Home button.
  2. On your remote, press the Settings button.
  3. In the settings side menu pop-up, select the Settings option.
  4. In the menu, select the General option.
  5. In the General menu, select the System option.
  6. In the System menu, select the Additional Settings option. 
  7. In the Additional Settings, toggle off the Live Plus option.

Users can also opt out of ad targeting, limit ad tracking, and third-party data sharing.

The Additional Settings menu includes a Home Settings menu where users can turn off banner ads and content recommendations:

  1. In the Additional Settings menu, select the Home Settings option.
  2. Uncheck the Home Promotion option.
  3. Uncheck the Content Recommendation option.

The Additional Settings menu includes an Advertisement settings menu where users can limit ad tracking:

  1. In the Additional Settings menu, select Advertisement.
  2. Toggle on the Limit AD Tracking option.

The Support menu includes an Advertisement settings menu where users can limit the sharing or sale of data to third parties:

  1. Navigate to the home screen by pressing the Home button on your remote.
  2. On your remote, press the Settings button.
  3. In the settings side menu pop-up, select the Settings option.
  4. In the menu, select the Support option.
  5. In the Support menu, select the Privacy & Terms option. Toggle on the Do Not Sell My Personal Information option.

LG does not offer a way to opt out of ACR or ad targeting on its website. Opting out of third-party data sharing is more difficult to do online than on your TV, requiring you to find and submit your model's TV operating system and unique hardware identifier.

If you recently purchased a new smart TV with ACR that is not on this list, The Markup is interested in learning more about readers' experiences with privacy and advertising on smart TVs.

This story was produced by The Markup and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.