The concept of “Big Brother” used to be a dystopian technological nightmare, but these days, it’s just another Wednesday. Unless you’re living with no electricity in a secluded cabin in the woods, the chances are that your likes, dislikes, physical location, friends, family members, and personal information are all being tracked by some of the most powerful corporations in the world. Maybe that’s why it’s become so hard to sleep at night?
While science fiction novels predicted this craziness decades ago, what few anticipated was how willingly the general public would implant tracking devices into every feature of their lives. Most of the time, people don’t even think about it. But the truth is, everything from cell phone cameras to smart TV recordings to your very DNA is being handled by people you’ve never met, for purposes ranging from government surveillance to targeted advertising. Sometimes, paranoia is a good thing.
The NSA can read your emails before your mom even receives them
U.S. lawmakers know how to sneak controversial legislation under the radar, according to CNET. In 2018, both house of Congress quietly renewed two NSA programs named Prism and Upstream, even though both programs — which were revealed to the public by Edward Snowden in 2013 — had previously earned a massive uproar from privacy advocates. What’s so bad about these programs? Let’s start with Prism. This technology collects communications sent by people using digital services like email and video chat. Upstream, then, plugs into the internet’s basement and roots out these communications while they’re still moving through cyberspace.
Prism and Upstream were allegedly created to covertly monitor the online communications of non-U.S. citizens, doing their own thing off in other countries, but the programs have been shown to “incidentally” spy on Americans as well, such as when you Skype your friend in Egypt. They have often intercepted regular American internet traffic as well. While the ins-and-outs of how it all works are more complex, the big question that everyone should be loudly demanding answers for is whether such government programs have a right to exist in the first place. You be the judge.
Yes, people can spy on you through your laptop camera
Everyone has that one crazy uncle who duct tapes the little camera on his laptop, and we all laugh at him. Now, it’s probably silly that he checks his lamps for hidden microphones every morning, and the literal tinfoil hat is a bit much, but when it comes to the laptop camera … well, he has a point. According to the New York Times , Mark Zuckerberg tapes over his camera, too. And when Mr. Facebook himself is doing it, taping it over suddenly doesn’t seem so paranoid. Admittedly, most people aren’t celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg, so there aren’t billions of followers trying to hack into your camera, just to stare at you flossing your teeth as you read listicles about privacy rights. However, Digital Spy does point out that innocent people have been recorded in states of undress by predatory voyeurs who upload these videos to creepy websites. It’s also worth noting that hackers can get into your cellphone’s camera, too, with the NSA having a reputation for hacking iPhone cameras in particular.
As reported by CNET, one school in Pennsylvania was even charged with spying on students via laptops the students brought home, which is pretty inexcusable. That said, if you want to avoid getting snooped on in this manner, the best thing you can do is try to avoid shady websites, weird advertisements, or unclear downloads. Also, get some good antivirus software on your computer, ASAP.
Amazon Echo and Google Home don’t just listen to you…
Alexa is like the friend you alway wanted. Alexa is patient, listens intently to your questions, knows all the answers, and remembers everything you’ve ever said — every single word, in fact. Which would be great, except “Alexa” is actually a virtual assistant, and as Wired points out, home listening devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home save your conversations. Now, to be fair, while listening devices always have their microphones turned on, they don’t record your voice until you use a “wake word,” (for example, “Alexa”) which stirs them out of their slumber. But once the wake word activates them, these devices can then record any conversations you have with them, and file away those audio clips in a cloud server, based in some faraway land.
Before you get too anxious, the good news is you can track down and delete these files at any time. However, if you’re still not sleeping easy about the idea of some machine recording you all the time, it’s hard to blame you. As the San Diego Union Tribune explains, these listening devices employ something called a “sniffer algorithm.” Just like your dog and your mother-in-law sniff around for the good stuff buried in your garbage, this algorithm hunts for “trigger words” in your voice, indicating heightened interest in particular topics. Why? To sell you stuff, of course. While Amazon claims they don’t use these keywords to push targeted advertising, it’s hard not to be cynical.
You thought Google wasn’t saving all your searches?
In retrospect, this should have been obvious. For the past couple decades, we’ve been asking Google every question that’s ever popped into our head, sharing countless embarrassing personal facts in the process. Sure, Facebook might be spying on your likes, but Google knows all about that weird bump on your thigh you were so worried about for a whole week in 2009. Google knows you looked up advice for dealing with your in-laws. Google knows you had to ask how to spell the word Cincinnati. It knows about all your weird inquiries, your political indecision, your secret obsession with bad rom-coms … you get the idea. Most horrifying of all, according to the Washington Post, Google saves a detailed log of every search you’ve ever made, from any device.
Calm down. Take a deep breath. If it helps, take note that Google only recorded these searches if you were logged into your Google or Gmail account at the time, but let’s face: Gmail users are always logged in. Google does allows you to go back and read all the searches you’ve ever made, so at least you can relive the shame of that weird bump on your thigh.
Meanwhile, you know that whole “incognito mode” thing? The Independent explains that while Chrome’s incognito mode won’t save your browsing history, the not-so-private browsing mode won’t keep you invisible from the websites themselves or from whoever runs the network you’re using.
Your smart TV is a little too smart
There’s a reason it’s not called a dumb TV. In case you didn’t read every bit of the fine print when you bought that swanky new Samsung flat screen, CNET offers a helpful reminder that not only does your TV capture voice recordings and send them to third parties in order to improve its recognition software, but users should also keep in mind that whatever you say around the TV — you know, while you’re sitting in the living room drinking with your friends — might be captured and sent off as well. Imagine your TV is the sort of person who just blabs everybody’s secrets without realizing it, and you’ll be on the right track.
CNET also details the so-called “Weeping Angel” hack revealed via Wikileaks, which was allegedly a program developed by both the CIA and MI5 that would make your Samsung TV appear to be turned off while it recorded your conversations. According to CNBC , ex-CIA director Michael Hayden tried to cool everyone’s nerves in a TV interview with Stephen Colbert by assuring the American public that a tool like Weeping Angel would never be used against American citizens, and that “There are bad people in the world that have Samsung TVs, too.” Realistically, this explanation probably didn’t calm most people down. If you haven’t already thrown your smart TV through the window, the good news is you can simply disable data collection in the privacy settings.
Snapchat knows your location
If you’re the kind of flaky, dishonest person who would tell your friend that you can’t make it to their party in San Diego because you’re taking a trip to Cancun — but really, you’re just visiting that friend’s sworn archenemy in Las Vegas — well, don’t open up the Snapchat app, or at least go more carefully through your settings. Snapchat’s “Snap Maps” feature, according to Canada’s Global News, publicly shows your location to everyone on your friends list, every time you open the app.
However, it’s worth explaining that this is another one of those features you have to opt-in to. If you’re not a fan of having your location placed on the map, you’re perfectly capable of using Snapchat in the “ghost mode” setting, which doesn’t broadcast your location. Basically, if you want to use Snapchat but don’t want people to know where you are, just read and think before you click the “yes” button. Rather than hiding Snap Maps, Snapchat has been quite public about how Snap Maps works, not only marketing it as a reason to use Snapchat, but also expanding the Snap Maps program in 2018, according to The Verge .
Facebook knows your political opinions (and oh so much more)
Lately, you can’t throw a stone without hitting another way that Facebook is violating your privacy. While proclaiming that “Facebook is watching you” is like saying the sky is blue, here’s one thing you might’ve not realized Facebook was logging into its database, according to the New York Times : your political opinions. See, even if you don’t publicly post your party alliance on your profile, Facebook tracks who and what you like — including pages, people, or companies that endorse certain political candidates — and it adds all this up to calculate you as being anything from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative,” as well as more moderate options in between. This will then determine what sort of political advertisements you see. So, for example, if Candidate X pays Facebook to show campaign ads to moderate liberals, those users will see those ads. Weirded out yet?
Of course, Facebook’s creepiness doesn’t end there, according to The Verge . In 2018, yet another uncomfortable truth danced out into the light, when Android users realized Facebook Messenger had been keeping a thorough log of their call history and SMS data for years. In all fairness, this “feature” was opt-in, not mandatory. So while Facebook certainly needs to do a better job at informing users about what exactly they’re opting in to, users do need to pay more attention to the actions of their own thumbs. Maybe it’s time to start reading those user agreements we all click through.
XKeyscore is the NSA’s all-access pass to your internet records
As if we hadn’t already heard enough about the invasive technologies used by the NSA, The Guardian explains the background details behind one of Edward Snowden’s most haunting statements: “I, sitting at my desk, [could] wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.” While U.S. officials claimed this wasn’t possible, the NSA’s program XKeyscore certainly sounds like what Snowden was talking about. XKeyscore’s training documents reveal a program capable of digging into “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet,” requiring only that the user fill out a little form with some sort of justification for the search — a reason that would shockingly not need to be reviewed by the courts.
Basically, XKeyscore can mine through email contents, a person’s browser history, what terms they search for, their metadata, and even real-time readings on what they’re doing right now. A 2012 document contained a section titled “plug-ins,” which demonstrated how XKeyscore could scan through email addresses, phone numbers, user names, chat logs, friend lists, cookies, and more. U.S. law requires the NSA to obtain a warrant if they want to monitor a U.S. citizen, but Americans talking to foreign targets, or foreign citizens altogether? No warrant required. Either way, the whole thing sounds pretty Orwellian.
Your bank knows the size of your lungs
Whenever you get on the phone with the customer service line for any company, always remember how easily you can be recorded — and don’t assume you aren’t being recorded just because the little automated voice didn’t mention it. For example, VC Star reports that back in 2017, Bank of America was forced to cough up a settlement of over $1 million when the company violated California law by not properly informing customers it was recording them. Oops.
But seriously, never underestimate the sort of technology that is analyzing your voice. On the other hand, don’t always assume that such technology is necessarily a bad thing. For example, CreditCards.com explains that three of the four largest banks in the United States analyze their recorded calls with a form of technology called “phoneprinting,” which assesses 147 characteristics of each call, including a person’s voice, the type of phone being used, and the location of the call. Voice analyzing software, such as the programs developed by Nice Systems in Israel, go so far as to analyze the size of the caller’s lungs, their pitch, and their tone. Before you get stressed out about this, understand the reason: It’s not to sell you things (yet) but rather to prevent credit card fraud, as a service on your behalf. If someone tries to steal your identity, this software can compare their voice to yours, and more easily root out impostors.
Watch out who you’re giving your DNA too
These days, many companies allow you to spit in a tube, mail your spit, and find out where your family came from (supposedly). Sounds great, right? If you really feel like splurging on something crazy, the genetic code market has really opened up in the last few years, to the point where companies like Helix will even sell you bottles of wine carefully designed and “scientifically selected” to perfectly compliment your genetics.
But according to Gizmodo , you should probably understand exactly what rights you’re handing over before you sign up for services like Helix, Ancestry.com, or 23andMe. If you carefully read the agreements that accompany these mail-in DNA kits , you’ll find out you’re giving away some pretty personal information, and giving that company the right to use your DNA sample however they want. Now, while these companies probably aren’t developing any grand sci-fi achievements like human clones or toxic swamp monsters with your face, if they were … well, let’s just say you couldn’t do much about it. More realistically, by sending in your DNA sample, you’re giving them free license to store it, test it, or share it with third parties that may not have your best interests in mind. If you’re cool with that, no worries, just make sure you know what you’re signing up for. And keep in mind, as Kristen Brown of Gizmodo writes, those ancestral DNA tests aren’t always so accurate.