Your TV Is Spying On You

What happens when a smart TV becomes too smart for its own good? The answer, it seems, is more intrusive advertisements.

Last week, Janko Roettgers, a technology and entertainment reporter, uncovered a dystopian patent filed last August by Roku, the television- and streaming-device manufacturer whose platform is used by tens of millions of people worldwide. The filing details plans for an “HDMI customized ad insertion,” which would allow TVs made by Roku to monitor video signals through the HDMI port—where users might connect a game console, a Blu-ray player, a cable box, or even another streaming device—and then inject targeted advertisements when content is paused. This would be a drastic extension of Roku’s surveillance potential: The company currently has no ability to see what users might be doing when they switch away from its proprietary streaming platform. This is apparently a problem, in that Roku is missing monetization opportunities!

Although the patent may never come to fruition (a spokesperson for Roku told me that the company had no plans to put HDMI ad insertion into any products at this time), it speaks to a dispiriting recent trend in consumer hardware. Internet-connected products can transform after the point of purchase in ways that can feel intrusive or even hostile to users. Another example from Roku: Just last month, the company presented users with an update to its terms of service, asking them to enter a pre-arbitration process that would make it harder to sue the company. On one hand, this isn’t so unusual—apps frequently force users to accept terms-of-service updates before proceeding. But on the other, it feels galling to be locked out of using your television altogether over a legal agreement: “Until I press ‘Agree’ my tv is essentially being held hostage and rendered useless,” one Roku customer posted on Reddit. “I can’t even change the HDMI input.”

A Roku spokesperson confirmed that a user does have to agree to the latest terms in order to use the company’s services but said that customers have the option to opt out, by sending a letter, in the actual mail, to the company’s general counsel (though the window to do so closed on March 21). “Like many companies, Roku updates its terms of service from time to time,” the spokesperson told me. “When we do, we take steps to make sure customers are informed of the change.”

Back in the day, a TV was a TV, a commercial was a commercial, and a computer was a computer. They have now been mixed into an unholy brew by the internet and by opportunistic corporations, which have developed “automatic content recognition” systems. These collect granular data about individual watching habits and log them into databases, which are then used to serve ads or sold to interested parties, such as politicians. The slow surveillance colonization of everyday electronics was normalized by free internet services, which conditioned people to the mentality that our personal information is the actual cost of doing business: The TVs got cheaper, and now we pay with our data. Not only is this a bad deal; it fundamentally should not apply to hardware and software that people purchase with money. One Roku customer aptly summed up the frustration recently on X: “We gave up God’s light (cathode rays and phosphorus) for this.”

And this phenomenon has collided with another modern concern—what the writer and activist Cory Doctorow evocatively calls “enshittification.” The term speaks to a pervasive cultural sense that things are getting worse, that the digital products we use are effectively being turned against us. For example: Apart from its ad-stuffed streaming devices, Roku also offers a remote-control app for smartphones. In a Reddit post last month, a user attached a screenshot of a subtle ad module that the company inserted into the app well after launch—gently enshittifying the simple act of navigating your television screen. “Just wait until we have to sit through a 1 minute video ad before we can use the remote,” one commenter wrote. “Don’t give them any ideas,” another replied.

Part of Doctorow’s enshittification thesis involves a business-model bait and switch, where platforms attract people with nice, free features and then turn on the ad faucet. Roku fits into this framework. The company lost $44 million on its physical devices last year but made almost $1.6 billion with its ads and services products. It turns out that Roku is actually an advertising company much like, say, Google and Meta. And marketing depends on captive audiences: commercial breaks, billboards that you can’t help but see on the highway, and so on.

Elsewhere, companies have infused their devices with “digital rights management” or DRM restrictions, which halt people’s attempts to modify devices they own. I wrote last year about my HP inkjet printer, which the company remotely bricked after the credit card I used to purchase an ink-cartridge subscription expired. My printer had ink (that I’d paid for), but I couldn’t use it. It felt like extortion. Restrictive rights usage happens everywhere—with songs, movies, and audiobooks that play only on specific platforms, and with big, expensive physical tech products, such as cars. The entire concept of ownership now feels muddied. If HP can disable my printer, if Roku can shut off my television, if Tesla can change the life of my car battery remotely, are the devices I own really mine?

The answer is: not really. Or not like they used to be. The loss of meaningful ownership over our devices, combined with the general degradation of products we use every day, creates a generally bad mood for consumers, one that has started to radiate beyond the digital realm. The mass production and Amazon-ification of cheap consumer goods is different from, say, Boeing’s decline of quality in airline manufacturing allegedly in service of shareholder profits, which is different from televisions that blitz your eyeballs with jarring ads; yet these disparate things have started to feel linked—a problem that could be defined in general by mounting shamelessness from corporate entities. It is a feeling of decay, of disrespect.

In some areas, it means that quality goes down in service of higher margins; in others, it feels like being forced to expect and accept that whatever can be monetized will be, regardless of whether the consumer experience suffers. People feel this everywhere. They feel it in Hollywood, where, as the reporter Richard Rushfield recently put it, the entertainment industry is full of executives “who believe the deal is more important than the audience”—and that consumers ultimately “have no choice but to buy tickets for the latest Mission Impossible or Fast and Furious—because they always have and we own them so they’ll see what we tell them to see.” People feel it in unexpected places such as professional golf: Recently, I was surprised to read an issue of the Fried Egg Golf newsletter that compared NBC Sports’ weak PGA Tour broadcasts to the ongoing debacle at Boeing. “Is there a general lack of morale amongst people right now?” the author wrote. “Does anyone take pride in their work? Or are we just letting quality suffer across all domains for the sake of cutting costs?”

These last two examples aren’t Doctorowian per se: They are merely things that people feel have gotten worse because companies assume that consumers will accept inferior products, or that they have nowhere else to go. In this sense, Doctorow’s enshittification may transcend its original, digital meaning. Like doomscrolling, it gives language to an epochal ethos. “The problem is that all of this is getting worse, not better,” Doctorow told me last year when I interviewed him about my printer-extortion debacle. He was talking about companies locking consumers into frustrating ecosystems but also about consumer dismay at large. “The last thing we want is everything to be inkjet-ified,” he said.

Doctorow’s observation, I realize, is the actual reason I and so many others online are so worked up over a theoretical patent that might not come to fruition. Needing to do a hostage negotiation with your television is annoying—enraging, even—but it is only a small indignity. Much greater is the creeping sensation that it has become standard practice for the things we buy to fail us through subtle, technological betrayals. A little surveillance here, a little forced arbitration there. Add it up, and the real problem becomes existential. It sure feels like the inkjets are winning.

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