In last month’s article, I described Cloudflare’s 188.8.131.52 DNS service that can give you some more privacy for your web browsing and speed up your internet traffic. I’ve used Cloudflare for over a year, but I wasn’t done with trying to optimize my network.
I came across an article last year regarding Smart TVs and the amount of content that was being tracked from programs I watched and the type of ads I was being served. This caught my attention because I had just purchased a brand new 42-inch, 4K, TCL Roku TV for just over $200. And as you can guess, one of the reasons that the TV is this cheap is that ad companies subsidize it. The remote is hardcoded with buttons for specific services paid by these companies. Unfortunately, I can’t change how they are programmed.
So, down the rabbit hole I went.
I spent hours researching how ad systems functioned for Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Your large online web services such as YouTube have built their own ad delivery system. Most smaller websites integrate ad delivery from 3rd party websites that are invisible to you. And a lot of services are designed to load ads before the main content of a web page. It’s one of the reasons some web pages load slower.
I have used a 3rd party tool for my web browser called, uBlock Origin, to cut down on the ads on my computer for a while. Now, I was ready to see what was happening with the other devices on my network and I came across a new tool I had to give a try: Pi-hole.
Pi-hole is a free, open source program that runs on an inexpensive $30 computer called a Raspberry Pi. Let me be clear that this is highly technical to implement, as you will need a pretty good understanding of command line operating systems, TCP/IP, DNS, and caching. It’s easier than manually looking at my firewall or using another free tool, Wireshark.
Pi-hole integrates the Cloudflare DNS service and incorporates total ad blocking before it hits devices on your network. If a device requests an ad on the internet, Pi-hole checks the online ad blacklist websites and stops it cold. It’s not 100% effective, since YouTube has their own ad services and this device cannot block those without blocking all of YouTube. The good thing is that it will stop ads from places that integrate 3rd party services. Now, instead, I see blank white spots on web pages or on my smart tv where an ad used to be.
Since many video or images ads aren’t loading, I also save bandwidth. Imagine if you could save some bandwidth on your mobile hotspot by blocking video and image ads.
It was after forcing all my devices to use Pi-hole that I saw how often the TV “phoned home”. My TV shoots out a request every 30 seconds, which is equivalent to 66% of all requests out to the internet. Pi-hole blocks those requests. Now shooting out a request doesn’t equal bandwidth, but for some reason, the TV is programed to stay in constant contact with the parent company and I have the log files to prove it.
I’ve read numerous ideas around this level of “phoning home”. The most common response was lazy programming. If lazy programming is the cause, that leads to more privacy and security concerns. Some parts of me hope it’s more deliberate, but this isn’t limited to smart TVs, as it can be anything connected to the internet.
Before you go buy that next cool gadget that uses the internet, do a little research on what it may track and any known security issues with the company.