Germany investigates smart TVs and their use of personal data

The German cartel office (Bundeskartellamt) has this week launched an inquiry into the smart TV market, focussed on how the TV manufacturers use consumer data. In these early days of the General Data Regulation (GDPR) in Europe, this could lead to significant changes to terms of service and contracts and even result in devices or apps being withdrawn from the market.

In particular one area we suspect that will be a little worrying will be any Smart TVs that use Android TV. The issues surrounding its Widevine DRM which requires Google to run the license server in the cloud, means that any Android TV box that uses this (it supports Microsoft PlayReady as well) sends data about what each household is watching back to a Google server. For that matter this week’s purchase by Apple of Shazam is something which runs on a Samsung smart TVs – and suddenly Apple would be under scrutiny about what it does with that information – it can likely work out everything anyone is watching using Shazam, even thought the data is likely to be anonymized in both instances.

Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt said as he announced the investigation, “Smart TVs are merely one example of the ever-growing connectedness of things in private life and the issue of knowingly and unknowingly disclosing personal data. For the purposes of our inquiry we have deliberately picked an everyday item which is also used by people who are not very technology-savvy. The fate of consumer data, once released, and their commercial use will certainly keep us busy beyond the current sector inquiry.”

One or two Smart TVs also have cameras installed in them, showing the audience for analysis, of who they are and what they might like to watch, and that again is not going to be something the Bundeskartellamt looks kindly on.

If any app on the Smart TV passes on data about a person without the person being made aware or able to block, it the Bundeskartellamt will come down hard and those devices are likely to be removed from the market until they are modified or their contractual relationship with the customer changed or both.

A questionnaire will be sent to all major TV manufacturers in early 2018 to identify potential weaknesses in terms and conditions, data protection and data safety. The Bundeskartellamt will then decide what additional consumer protection may be needed, especially in the light of the Internet of Things. Expect the EU to follow up on an EU wide basis, if Germany finds anything not to its liking.