Chinese TV maker Skyworth under fire for excessive data collection that users call spying

Chinese television maker Skyworth has issued an apology after a consumer found that his set was quietly collecting a wide range of private data and sending it to a Beijing-based analytics company without his consent.

A network traffic analysis revealed that a Skyworth smart TV scanned for other devices connected to the same local network every 10 minutes and gathered data that included device names, IP addresses, network latency and even the names of other Wi-Fi networks within range, according to a post last week on the Chinese developer forum V2EX.

The data was sent to the Beijing-based firm Gozen Data, the forum user said. Gozen is a data analytics company that specialises in targeted advertising on smart TVs, and it calls itself China‘s first “home marketing company empowered by big data centred on family data”.

The user did not identify himself, and efforts to contact the person received no reply.

However, the post quickly picked up steam, touching a nerve among Chinese consumers and prompting angry comments.

“Isn’t this already the criminal offence of spying on people?” asked one user on Sina.com, a Chinese financial news portal. “Whom will the collected data be sold to, and who is the end user of this data?”

The reaction online eventually prompted Skyworth to respond.

The Shenzhen-based TV and set-top box maker issued a statement on April 27, saying it had ended its “cooperation” with Gozen and demanded the firm delete all its “illegally” collected data. Skyworth also said it had stopped using the Gozen app on its televisions and was looking into the issue.

Gozen issued a statement on its website on the same day, saying its Gozen Data Android app could be disabled on Skyworth TVs, but it did not address the likelihood that users would be aware of this functionality. The company also apologised for “causing user concerns about privacy and security”.

On its official WeChat account, Gozen said in a post from 2019 that it has been working with Skyworth since 2014. Its latest post, which included its apology, said the company collected data for viewership research that includes “television ratings for households and individuals, viewership analysis, advertising analysis and optimisation”. Neither company provided information on the scope and depth of the data collection.

When reached by the Post on Monday, Skyworth said in a statement that its products sold in Hong Kong had never been pre-installed with the Gozen application. “Data security and user privacy are our highest priorities … we will continue to safeguard our users’ privacy, data, rights and interests.”

An e-mail to Gozen on Monday, a public holiday in mainland China, went unanswered.

The revelations about Skyworth and Gozen come amid a national crackdown on the rampant collection and use of user data. Beijing recently introduced new regulations for protecting personal data and curbing its collection through mobile apps.

New rules introduced in March define for the first time personal information considered “necessary” for apps in 39 different categories, including messaging and e-commerce. Users should be able to decline to provide data that is not necessary for an app to function, according to the new rules. Users of live-streaming and short-video apps, for example, should be able to use such apps without providing any personal information.

The much-anticipated Personal Information Protection Law is now under its second round of review and is expected to go into effect within the year.

While this would be China‘s first law protecting personal data, legal experts indicated that regulators face challenges in striking a balance between protecting user data and enabling companies to benefit from the insights it provides.

Skyworth said the data it collected in partnership with Gozen was “necessary” to measure viewership, but stressed that Gozen was not authorised to collect data for anything more.

There have been no reports that Skyworth or Gozen are being investigated. Still, the disclosure and corporate statements have fanned fears among users in China, where Skyworth was the third biggest TV brand by sales volume in 2020, behind

Xiaomi and Hisense, making up more than 13 per cent of the market. Globally, the company was the fifth-largest TV maker, according to data from Trendforce, behind Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, TCL and Hisense. South China Morning Post

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