Protocol | China

Chinese smart TVs are snooping on their owners

Hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers could be sharing personal info without their knowledge or consent.

Chinese smart TVs are snooping on their owners

People learn about a transparent TV set displayed in a Xiaomi shop in Shanghai, China.

Photo: Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers had a surprise discovery last week: Their TV sets know a lot more about them than they'd ever thought, or ever agreed to.

It turns out Beijing-based Gozen Data, a leading Chinese TV viewership analytics firm, has been collecting personal data in real time using smart TVs — without users' consent.

The practice was first exposed when a user on V2EX, an online forum for tech enthusiasts, noticed their Skyworth-brand smart TV had become slow and analyzed the code of back-end programs to figure out why. What they found was a program that scans the user's Wi-Fi every 10 minutes and uploads a wide range of information to Gozen Data's website.

"What smart devices are used at home; whether your phone is at home; who is visiting and using your Wi-Fi; what's the name of your neighbor's Wi-Fi; all of these are constantly being collected and uploaded," the user wrote on April 22. The finding was later reposted on Weibo, attracting widespread concern.

Discussions about illegal data-collecting practices are common in China, but mostly center on smartphone apps, which Chinese regulators have been scrutinizing over the past year. This appears to be the first high-profile, publicly-disclosed instance of data security concerns centering on smart TVs.

As in the United States, smart TVs have become ubiquitous in Chinese homes. A 2019 industry report estimates that 270 million smart TVs are in use in China. Gozen Data says it has been working with smart TV makers since 2014 to embed its data collection program. Its reach appears vast: Up until April 27, Gozen Data's website said its data collection service covered 149 million households, 140 million smart TVs and 457 million people in China.

The problem is, almost no TV watchers have known about the practice. Despite its reach, Gozen Data is not a widely-known name within China. After the news broke, Gozen removed the coverage numbers from its website.

The data Gozen previously said it collects is likely used to analyze a user's likes and enable personalized advertising. In a 2019 public speech, Chen Zhengxuan, Gozen Data's vice president, said the company collects information on what's streamed on TVs and, remarkably, what devices are being used in front of TV screens, "like smartphones, iPads, Xiaomi and Alibaba smart speakers." Pierced together, these data enable Gozen to guess who's watching the TV and to help advertisers target very specific groups, "like mothers of babies 0 to 3 years old," Chen said.

Gozen Data's website has taken down mentions of which TV makers partner with the company. It previously listed a handful of domestic brands that collectively cover the majority of China's smart TV market. It's unclear whether all or any of these companies agreed to the stealth collection of user data.

Skyworth, the Chinese company that manufactured the particular smart TV set found to be uploading personal data, released an announcement on April 27 that it had immediately disabled all Gozen Data services. A data partnership between Skyworth and Gozen that has been in place since 2014 has also been terminated.

Gozen Data released a statement apologizing and promising to "improve our user privacy policy and ensure we are collecting information with users' consent and within the scope of legal compliance." Now its website has a separate page detailing the 21 types of data it collects from users, a list not available on the website before this week. (Gozen did not respond to a Protocol request for comment.)

The social media outrage against Gozen takes place amid a nationwide transition into smart-home living that leads the world. As Chinese companies continue to introduce home appliances that connect to the internet, concerns about data security are sure to spill over from discussions about mobile apps. On Weibo, many users shared complaints on the security risks that exist when everything — including kitchen hoods, water heaters and stoves — all go "smart." "It's really unnecessary for many traditional appliances to connect to the Wi-Fi," says one comment. Chinese companies eyeing a lucrative market are forging ahead anyway.

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