A paper accepted to the upcoming ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security shows precisely how Over-the-Top streaming devices (such as Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV) use and misuse data.

The channels on these devices are nothing more than applications that send and receive requests over the usual internet protocols. This means that they can (and do) employ trackers for the purposes of advertising.

Anyone even fleetingly familiar with the state of online tracking will know just how much data can be transmitted to these advertising networks. That the same thing happens on television, however, might come as a surprise.

These devices and their nearly limitless selection of channels (which includes games and other applications) have been found by researchers at Princeton and the University of Chicago to transmit data such as movie / video title, movie / video category, IP address, and device ID to as many as 64 distinct tracking services.

Less surprising is the list of companies collecting this data. Over 99% of the top 1000 Roku channels send data to Google (via doubleclick.net) and channels on the Fire TV device send data to Amazon, Google and Facebook.

While the findings of this paper raise some privacy concerns, it has become commonplace to accept tracking and advertisement targeting in exchange for free services. So to understand the full impact television has on individual privacy, we also have to consider paid television.

An article published today on Wired UK details Sky’s recent agreement to allow Virgin Media and Channel 4 to distribute targeted advertisements from Sky’s AdSmart system.

The AdSmart system uses a host of explicit and implicit data to segment Sky customers by demographic and psychographic attributes.

By analysing your viewing patterns, Sky claim that they are able to determine your income level, the number and ages of people in your household, whether you own a pet, whether you’re an early adopter of new technologies, and whether you’re expecting a baby. And this is just the implicit attributes.

They also collect data from reward programmes such as the Boots card (which enables cosmetics companies to appeal to people who buy from their competitors) and Experian (which provides proprietary ‘Mosaic’ segment data based on 30 years of credit reporting).

This is a terrifying violation of privacy and only becomes more so when you realise that Sky (the originators of AdSmart) and Virgin Media (AdSmart’s newest customer) have a combined 81% of the UK’s paid TV market share (2015 estimate, source).

For many people this system will feel like a gross misuse of their private data. Not only because of the types and volume of data collected but because they have to pay to watch Sky and Virgin Media.

By collecting our data and using it to drive advertisement revenue, these companies are profiting from our custom twice over.

These two recent reports show that the most popular television delivery mechanisms are morphing into a dangerous hybrid that costs viewers their money and their data.

This new middle ground is a symptom of half-hearted attempts by both traditional and new TV to explore alternative business models. The problem is that it’s only the viewers who are suffering. And as long as that’s the case, there will be something very wrong with TV.

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