By Adama Brown,
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Between data breaches and companies selling personal information, privacy concerns are everywhere these days, and for good reason.
Google and Apple: Surprisingly decent behavior from industry leaders
Considering their relatively dominant position in the technology world, Apple and Google could easily get away with some seriously invasive behavior, simply because their reach is going to make their services popular regardless of what compromises they demand. So it’s a pleasant surprise to find out that the two tech giants actually have some of the better practices out there.
Apple, for one, specifically notes that they do not sell user data to third parties, display targeted advertisements, or track users on other apps and services, making them by far the most privacy-friendly provider of streaming hardware or software out there.
Google is a little less so; being one of the largest providers of targeted advertising, they do actively serve users with targeted advertising, as well as collecting data on what you watch and when. However, Google is very clear that they do not share or sell any of your personal data to third parties.
Even better, you can turn off both targeted ads and usage data, effectively matching Apple’s privacy. Even when turned on, a Chromecast device is only gathering data on what you use directly with it. As you’ll see shortly, there are worse options.
Amazon: Not the worst, but not the best
Another one of the titans of the internet, Amazon also has slightly better practices than you might expect, given their fairly cutthroat reputation. Like Google, they do admit to using targeted ads, collecting usage data, and tracking you across the internet.
Unlike Google, however, Amazon offers you no ability to opt out of ad targeting and usage tracking. If you use their services, you’re simply stuck with what they want to do with your data. However, they too do not share that data with third parties.
Everyone else: third-party sharing galore
Here’s where things start to get ugly. When you look at the privacy policies of other large streaming services, they are pretty uniform. Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+, Discovery+, and Peacock all engage in everything that Google and Amazon do, with no ability to opt out: targeted ads, tracking, usage reports, etc.
But these streamers take it one step further by also selling the data they collect on you to third-party advertisers, something that neither Google nor Amazon does, and with no opt-out options. If you subscribe to them, count on having your identity alongside what you like to watch constantly updated in some advertiser’s database.
Roku, king of the snoopers
For the title of “worst practices,” however, Roku’s data-mining makes other providers look like a small hole dug in the back yard, compared to a West Virginia coal mine.
It’s not a coincidence that Roku comes built into so many inexpensive new smart TVs; the company can license out its software to manufacturers at a cut rate, because they recoup so much in advertising data. They take everything that they can get–all the information other streamers take–and a bit more.
So what exactly does Roku collect?
- Your name
- Email address
- Street address
- Current location
- Demographic information (age, race, sex, etc)
- Activity though all Roku apps and other online tracking profiles
- Records of everything you watch through your Roku TV
That last one is the big difference between Roku and other streaming hardware or services. Besides simply knowing what you’re watching on their service, Roku also uses Automatic Content Recognition, or ACR, a technology which lets them identify anything you watch on your TV. Cable, other streaming systems, and even DVDs or broadcast TV can be identified automatically and reported to Roku’s central database.
You can opt out of their use of ACR, so some of your viewing habits can stay private, but that only affects other stuff going through your TV: anything that you use the Roku software for is still fair game as far as they’re concerned.
How do I protect my privacy?
The simplest step is to opt out of everything that you can. Go through your device’s privacy settings and turn off usage reports, turn off content recognition, and if your provider allows for it, turn off targeted ads. This will at least reduce the information that is collected on you.
Another step you can take is, when canceling an account, make sure to contact the service provider and request they delete your information. Most providers do not do this automatically when accounts are canceled, but are obligated by law to do so if asked.
You may also want to disable the voice commands for any system which supports it. While being able to talk to your TV is undeniably cool, there are serious privacy problems with voice automation systems, and having something always listening to you is a definite privacy issue.
If you’re more technically inclined, you can also set up a whole-home advertising blocker such as AdGuard Home or PiHole. While these won’t necessarily stop your smart TV from collecting your data, it will block advertising targeting you.
Last but not least, you can avoid as much as possible using the more invasive services. For instance, using an Apple TV or Chromecast device instead of a Roku or Fire Stick gives you much more control over what information is collected and where it goes.
Unfortunately, a certain amount of interest by your smart TV and streaming providers is unavoidable. But with care, and choosing the right hardware and services, you can minimize what you have to put up with.