Opinion: Why I'm never connecting my smart TV to the internet again

A smart television being unplugged from the internet
Did you know what you watch is likely being recorded and uploaded to the internet? Photo credit: Getty Images

OPINION: It's not hard to imagine that a news outlet's technology editor is a bit of a geek who gets excited by the prospect of new gadgets and devices.

But that excitement has its limits. I discovered this a few months after connecting my smart television to the internet, which is something I'm not going to be doing ever again.

Allow me to explain.

Ever since I got my first computer in 1982 - a ZX Spectrum 48k - I've been obsessed with tech in all its forms.

ZX Spectrum 48K
Photo credit: Getty Images

A few years later I was accused of 'hacking' a teacher's computer at high school, before PCs were even really a thing.

Given I couldn't hack my way out of a wet paper bag, this wasn't true; but it was the first time I had really considered there could be a downside to technology.

That didn't stop me, though. In 1998, after Amazon opened in the UK as an online bookstore only, I wrote a cringe-worthy congratulatory email to the company begging them to sell more and more that way.

It continued. When the first ebook reader in New Zealand in 2013 was launched I couldn't wait to jump on the bandwagon, happily selling all my hard copy books for a fraction of what they were worth for a lump of plastic and an E Ink screen.

But as the world becomes ever more connected amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I'm finally doubting my decision to be as 'smart' as possible.

I'm not quite sure what the straw that broke the camel's back was. It might have been having to perform a firmware update before turning on my living room light, or maybe the time I ended up swearing at one of my smart speakers because they couldn't understand a simple phrase they'd understood many times before.

Regardless, I can trace the very first straw back to just one event a couple of years ago when I bought a new smart TV.

I researched the brands I wanted, decided the specification I needed and checked out the price comparison websites for the best deal as I always do. Then I pounced, eager to add the latest gadget to the house.

For the first few months it was glorious. I was able to connect it to the internet and take advantage of all the streaming platforms that were supported. It looked great, sounded great and I never doubted my purchase.

Until an advert showed up on the home screen.

Unwanted, unremovable ads

The ad came as something of a surprise to me. There had been no adverts prior to that moment and I hadn't, that I could recall, agreed to anything in the last few weeks.

It turns out my research hadn't been as thorough as it should have been.

A quick internet search opened my eyes and sent me down a rabbit hole I had no idea existed. I found that not only is it common for your television itself to display adverts, there is no easy way to stop them being shown.

To spend thousands of dollars on a flash new TV only to have its manufacturer make more money from you by putting ads on it is bad enough. But people having to buy new open-source routers and adding lists of IP addresses specifically to block the adverts is insane to me.

Unremovable ads on my $2,500 Samsung Smart TV by Reddit user BrownLandlord.
An example of a smart TV advert. Photo credit: Reddit/BrownLandlord

Of course, you give permission to be shown those adverts in the terms and conditions you skip past when you first turn on any device or install a piece of software. I suspect if I had read every one of those Ts&Cs since the first one popped up, I wouldn't have time for anything else in my life - but that doesn't excuse me, right?

But it gets worse. It turns out many brands of smart televisions use something called 'automatic content recognition' (ACR).

Essentially, ACR takes a snapshot of everything you watch or listen to on the TV and compares that to a database so it can find out your viewing habits in order to serve ads better suited to you. This is said to be to ensure recommendations are suited to what you actually like.

But, of course, that can be and has been abused.

Companies have been fined millions of dollars for taking that information and selling it to advertising companies. 

Now I'm quite happy to tweet out my love of Ted Lasso to all and sundry, but there are certain viewing habits I really would rather keep to myself.

No one needs to know just how often I watch Paddington 2 and I certainly don't want my TV's camera recording how often it makes me sob.

Privacy concerns

Consumer Reports published a study that found smart TV user data was sent to the likes of Amazon, Facebook and DoubleClick, Google’s advertising business. 

"Almost all the TVs sent data to Netflix even if the app wasn’t installed or the owner hadn’t activated it," the report stated.

Read that last line again. 

"Almost all the TVs sent data to Netflix even if the app wasn’t installed or the owner hadn’t activated it."

It probably says something about me that I didn't act immediately the first time I read that sentence.

But, at 47 years old, I've decided this old dog can be taught new tricks. There's not much I can do about my current television - once it's connected to the internet it's already too late.

However it's inevitable I'll buy another one in the not-too-distant future and that one isn't going anywhere near the internet. If I need to update the firmware, I'll do so with a USB stick.

I recommend that if you do connect your smart TV to the internet, at least do so with your eyes open and with the expectation that anything and everything you watch may be getting uploaded to a server somewhere and then might be getting sold to someone else to then put ads on your screen.

Sure, I'll miss some of the convenience of having my online streaming apps right there on the home screen; but I can achieve a similar result by plugging in a small, dedicated computer into my television via HDMI. One that I'm better able to control.

Until that day eventuates, I'm just going to hope those advertisers tracking me don't draw too many conclusions from the sheer number of reality baking shows I watch.

Now I'm off to non-Amazon to buy some of those Terry Pratchett books I sold in 2013. Made of actual paper. I can't wait to put them on my non-smart bookshelf.

Mike Kilpatrick is Newshub's technology editor.