6 Ways Your Tech Is Spying on You -- and How You Can Fight Back
So, your TV might be spying on you. It probably just wanted to join in with the rest of the technology in your life, because let’s face it: if you live in the 21st century you’re probably monitored by half a dozen companies from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. (And if you wear a sleep tracker, it doesn’t even stop then.)
But other tech that spies on you might not be so genteel. The uncomfortable fact is that your personal data is just another way to pay for products and services these days.
The adage “if you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” was coined in 2010, a lifetime ago in web terms, but it’s as true today as it always has been. What’s changed now, though, is the number of ways companies are discovering to make sharing our data with them not something we grudgingly accept, but enthusiastically embrace. Sure, they tell us, you can turn it off. But do you really want to?
1. Facebook’s ‘like’ button
Even if you don’t use Facebook, you will have seen the company’s “like” button springing up in more and more places around the internet, like a nasty case of chicken pox. If you click on it, you can like the page of a company, person or brand, all without leaving the website you’re on.
And then there’s Facebook share buttons (like the one at the top of this page) and Facebook comments, both of which hook in to the company’s servers to provide their own features. But it’s a two-way relationship: the price you pay for being able to interact with Facebook even without going to their website is that they can see the other websites you’re on, following you around the internet and using that information to better target ads and content to you back on the mothership.
How to stop it: if you log out of Facebook when you’re done, the site’s ability to track your browsing is severely hampered. Of course, equally hampered is your ability to like things and comment on posts. Are you happy making that trade-off?
2. Smartphone location services
If you have an iPhone, try this: click on settings, then privacy, then location services, system services and frequent locations. You’ll notice a list of all the cities you’re in regularly. Click on any specific city, and you’ll find that your phone knows all the locations you frequently visit. For me, that includes my home, local tube station and office, but also the pub I play Netrunner in, the house of one of my best friends and the comics shop I frequent.
Don’t feel smug if you use Android instead: Google keeps just as copious notes on your location and, unlike Apple, it is stored in the cloud, where it can theoretically be subpoenaed by law enforcement or accessed by a suspicious partner who happens to know your password.
How to turn it off: both companies let you turn off location histories from the same pages you can look at yours. But if you do that, they’ll get a lot worse at giving you accurate and useful location suggestions. There’s that pesky trade-off again.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a company that sells you cheap cabs through a slick app keeps data on your journeys. And that data is well-used by Uber to reassure customers that their journey is safe: the company will show you your ride history as well as information about your driver which can be crucial for solving disputes or, if the worst happens, ensuring justice.
But Uber hasn’t got the best history of using that data well. The company has had to apologise before for accessing a journalist’s journey details in order to make rhetorical points, as well as remove a piece of “data journalism” looking at ride histories in aggregate to find out how many of their customers were using the service for one-night stands. They titled the post “rides of glory”.
How to turn it off: the best way would be not to use Uber. But there’s that trade-off again: old-school taxis, whether hailed from the street or called from a dispatch office, are going to end up charging you a lot more for your newly anonymous journey.
4. Mobile phone networks
Your mobile phone works by sending encrypted communications to and from masts, known as “cells”. Of course, especially in a built-up area, there’s likely to be more than one cell in range of your phone at any given time, and things would get confusing if they were all trying to run the call at the same time. So your phone pairs with one particular cell, and “hands off” to a new one when you move around (the annoying clicks you get if you leave a phone next to an unshielded speaker is your phone checking in with a cell, to confirm it’s still alive).
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realise what this means: your mobile phone network has a record of where you’ve been, accurate to at least the range of the closest phone tower. In practice, it’s probably quite a bit more accurate than that, as they can triangulate in using information from other towers in your area.
How to turn it off: stop using a mobile phone. Seriously, this one isn’t going away. If you’ve got a removable battery, you can try taking that out when you don’t want to be tracked, but whenever you turn your phone back on, your mobile phone network is going to know where you are.
5. Exif data in your pictures
Did you know that digital photographs contain information about the picture? Known as Exif data, the standard was created to hold stuff that photographers might find useful to know alongside the image, such as the focal length and aperture they used while taking it. It’s used by professionals to embed contact information and copyright details, as well.
Of course, as with most standards, there’s been a bit of feature-creep, and these days, Exif data can contain a whole lot more information. In fact, if you’ve taken a picture with a smartphone, or even a modern digital camera, there’s a good chance that the picture records where it was taken using the built-in GPS. That’s great for building maps of your holidays, but not so good if you’re trading snaps with strangers.
How to turn it off: most cameras let you disable embedding location data in the files, but the good news is that social networks are one step ahead of you – and this time, they’re on your side. Facebook and Twitter both strip the metadata from images uploaded to the site, causing a headache for users who need the extra information but protecting those who don’t know that they’re uploading potentially sensitive data.
6. Facial recognition
Have you ever used Facebook’s tag suggest feature? The social network can scan through your uploaded pictures to find ones with friends in who haven’t been tagged, and offer you suggestions for who to add. It’s a wonderful time-saver over doing it the manual way, even if careless use can lead to some social faux pas (try to avoid tagging someone you don’t like just because they’re in the background of another picture).
But Facebook, and Google – which offers a similar feature – can only do that because it’s been running facial-recognition software on photos uploaded to the site for years. In September 2012, Facebook was even forced to disable the feature after the Irish data protection commissioner scolded it for doing so without permission.
How to turn it off: try to avoid being in photos or having friends. Easy!