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Smart TVs, smart-home devices found to be leaking sensitive user data, researchers find

"Nearly all TV devices in our testbeds contacts Netflix even though we never configured any TV with a Netflix account," the researchers wrote.
Image: A man using smart TV apps via a digital tablet.
A man using smart TV apps via a digital tablet.Hero Images / Getty Images file

Smart-home devices, such as televisions and streaming boxes, are collecting reams of data — including sensitive information such as device locations — that is then being sent to third parties like advertisers and major tech companies, researchers said Tuesday.

As the findings show, even as privacy concerns have become a part of the discussion around consumer technology, new devices are adding to the hidden and often convoluted industry around data collection and monetization.

A team of researchers from Northeastern University and the Imperial College of London found that a variety of internet-connected devices collected and distributed data to outside companies, including smart TV and TV streaming devices from Roku and Amazon — even if a consumer did not interact with those companies.

"Nearly all TV devices in our testbeds contacts Netflix even though we never configured any TV with a Netflix account," the Northeastern and Imperial College researchers wrote.

The researchers tested a total of 81 devices in the U.S. and U.K. in an effort to gain a broad idea of how much data is collected by smart-home devices, and where that data goes.

The research was first reported by The Financial Times.

The researchers found data sent to a variety of companies, some known to consumers including Google, Facebook and Amazon, as well as companies that operate out of the public eye such as, a company that tracks users to help companies improve their products.

One of the researchers, David Choffnes, a professor of computer science at Northeastern, said that his previous work looking at the data collection and dissemination habits of mobile apps led him to expect similar practices with smart-home devices.

But he noted that he was surprised to see more encryption used by the devices his team tested, a good thing for consumers but also a change that makes it harder to see what information companies are sending to third parties.

He said one takeaway for the consumer is that devices with screens — everything from smart TVs to internet-connected refrigerators — tend to collect and share more data than other devices.

"You can usually install apps and as a result you're going to see somewhat similar behavior as you do on a mobile device," he said.

Choffnes said that consumers currently don't have many options to curtail these practices aside from removing the devices. He pointed to tools such as ad blockers on web browsers as examples of features that he is interested in pursuing to keep consumers safe.

"What happens if you start blocking network traffic?" he said.