“The thing that really struck me was this seems like quite an enormous ask for what seems like a silly, trivial feature,” Mr. Kitchen said. “You appear to opt into a discovery-recommendation service, but what you’re really opting into is pervasive monitoring on your TV.”
Ashwin Navin, Samba TV’s chief executive, said that the company’s use of data for advertising is made clear through the reference to “special offers,” and that the opt-in language “is meant to be as simple as it possibly can be.”
“It’s pretty upfront about the fact that this is what the software does — it reads what’s on the screen to drive recommendations and special offers,” Mr. Navin said. “We’ve taken an abundance of caution to put consumers in control of the data and give them disclosure on what we use the data for.”
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said few people review the fine print in their zeal to set up new televisions. He said the notice should also describe Samba TV’s “device map,” which matches TV content to mobile gadgets, according to a document on its website, and can help the company track users “in their office, in line at the food truck and on the road as they travel.”
Mr. Brookman of the Consumers Union, who reviewed the opt-in screen, said the trade-off was not clear for consumers. “Maybe the interactive features are so fantastic that they don’t mind that the company’s logging all the stuff that they’re watching, but I don’t think that’s evident from this,” he said.
Citi and JetBlue, which appear in some Samba TV marketing materials, said they stopped working with the company in 2016 but not before publicly endorsing its effectiveness. JetBlue hailed in a news release the increase in site visits driven by syncing its online ads with TV ads, while Christine DiLandro, a marketing director at Citi, joined Mr. Navin at an industry event at the end of 2015. In a video of the event, Ms. DiLandro described the ability to target people with digital ads after the company’s TV commercials aired as “a little magical.”
The Times is among the websites that allow advertisers to use data from Samba to track if people who see their ads visit their websites, but a Times spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, said that the company did that “simply as a matter of convenience for our clients” and that it was not an endorsement of Samba TV’s technology.
Companies like Samba TV are also a boon for TV makers, whose profit margins from selling sets can be slim. Samba TV essentially pays companies like Sony to include its software. Samba TV said “our business model does subsidize a small piece of the television hardware,” though it declined to provide further details.
Smart TV companies aren’t subject to the stricter rules and regulations regarding viewing data that have traditionally applied to cable companies, helping fuel “this rise of weird ways to figure out what someone’s watching,” said Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University and a former technology adviser at the Federal Communications Commission.
The smart TV companies are overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, Mr. Mayer said, meaning that “as long as you’re truthful to consumers, even if you make it really hard to exercise choices or don’t offer choices at all, you probably don’t have much of a legal issue.”
Mr. Daddi said the trade commission had held up Samba TV as “an exemplary model of data privacy and opt-in policies,” pointing to its participation in a smart TV workshop the agency held in late 2016. A commission spokeswoman said that it invited a diverse array of panelists to events and that “an invitation to participate in an F.T.C. event does not convey an endorsement of that company or organization.” She added that the agency does not “endorse or bless companies’ practices.”
Mr. Daddi added: “We have millions of viewers who have explicitly opted into our service and have continued to use it for years. So it is a fair argument to make that far more consumers are satisfied with Samba than surprised by it.”
Some worry, more broadly, about the TV industry’s increasing ability to use and share information about what people are watching with the internet ad ecosystem.
"I think people have rebelled to the online targeted ad experience,” Mr. Brookman said, “and I think they wouldn’t necessarily expect that from their TV.”