Sacrificing Privacy for Convenience? What You Can Do to Preserve Your Privacy

About a month ago we discussed how facial recognition in CCTV cameras could potentially provide the tools necessary to build an Orwellian society that tracks every citizen’s movements regardless of how innocent they may be. In reality, surveillance has been increasing steadily across all emerging economies and developed nations. In the United States, for example, there are cities where CCTV cameras are planted basically everywhere. But despite all of this, we’re still able to enjoy privacy in our own homes, right?

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Look at your phone for a second. Admire the technological marvel you hold in your hand. It’s a computer that can process information faster than people using IBM Aptiva PCs back in the 90s were even able to fathom. And yet it fits right in your palm, so you can take it wherever you go.

Easy sell, right?

Now, look at the front, at the rear, under and over it. You have a charging port, a screen, maybe a headphone jack, and, oh …. What are those? Two high-resolution cameras!

In 2017 approximately 2.32 billion people possess at least one smartphone. That’s roughly a third of the entire world population, each of them with a camera conveniently stored in their pocket coupled with a GPS sensor.

In most cases using people’s smartphone cameras would make for a terrible surveillance program. After all, most of the time people are doing anything worth watching, the phone is either in the person’s pocket or laying flat on a table with the camera looking up at the roof.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that there are places in the homes of many people living in developed countries that are constantly under surveillance by some sort of camera or microphone installed. We have smart TVs, facial recognition systems, and home assistance devices like Google Home or Amazon Echo. All of these things are constantly looking and listening to you at an angle that is convenient for surveillance.

And it’s already happened. Samsung had to warn customers that its TVs are listening to their living room chatter.

Even if governments aren’t looking to tap into your devices to see what you’re talking about with your significant other or your kids, hackers might be interested in eavesdropping a little.

No matter how many patches a piece of technology has, it can still be hacked in one way or another. Never underestimate the ingenuity of peeping tom hackers.

Amazon Echo, for example, has a vulnerability that potentially can transform it into a wiretap. While we’re at it, let’s also talk about the fact that some baby monitors are shockingly easy to access remotely, meaning from thousands of miles away. In some cases more mischievous folks would even talk through the monitor, making their voices heard to the parents and scaring them out of their wits.

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All of these stories are scary, but here’s the kicker: They’re all easily preventable. We’ve had convenient technologies waved around in front of us for a long time, but we often forget that we are sacrificing certain things for that convenience. One of those things is our own personal privacy.

When you buy a device, a doodad, an appliance, or some television set, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I live without something that has a camera and/or microphone? If the answer is yes, then don’t buy camera/microphone-laden devices.
  • If I must have one of these, is there a way that I can use it without connecting it to the Internet? If the answer is yes, then don’t allow it to access the Web.
  • If I must connect the device to the Internet in order for it to function, is there a way to disable the camera and/or microphone on a hardware level when I don’t want to be seen or heard? If the answer is yes, then do it!
  • If the camera/microphone is always on, is there any way to turn off the device itself? If the answer is yes, turn it off when you’re not using it.
  • If the device must constantly be on (as is the case with refrigerators, for example), am I absolutely sure I can’t just live with a mundane normal device that doesn’t have Skynet-esque technology attached to it? If the answer is yes, go back to square one and purchase something else. (Hint: you should answer “yes” as much as possible.)

If you value your privacy more than your convenience, you should avoid purchasing devices with microphones or cameras if at all possible. In the event you find yourself unable to do that, try adopting practices that will ensure you’re getting the most privacy out of the devices you use.

Do you have any other privacy-enhancing tips that you follow? Tell us in a comment!

11 comments

  1. Two TV shows bring into sharp focus the dangers of constant surveillance and connectivity – Person of Interest and Wisdom of the Crowd. Both of them make me want to drop out of society and live totally off the grid.

    • Wisdom of the Crowd I find particularly dystopic and disheartening. The show assumes that crowdsourcing can solve crimes and bring police closer to the correct suspects than trained, professional police detective work. The flaws of this “wisdom of the crowd” religion are as serious and as toxic to justice as the notion that “thirteen chimpanzees banging on typewriters will eventually write Shakespeare” (The Thirteenth Monkey bullshit) has been to popular notions about how science works. No wonder we now have official denial of manmade climate change and lingering conspiracy theories about why Hillary lost in 2016.

      Far from being the Voice of Reason, the Crowd is much more often like the Groupthink found in the book The Missiles of OCtober or the madness of the collective so graphically described in LeBon’s early sociolgy treatise on the French Revolution and its aftermath. Sometimes I wonder whether we are now experiencing a “Fronde” of our own in America today. The Crowd is the Enemy of Reason, not its Savior.

  2. I hear you very will and agree, then the crime shows give examples and ideals to those who would cross that threshold – least not forgetting the web expands this further…

    If you’d look back at early man when his brain started working to make his world easier/better, in that expansion in seeking knowledge and know-how of his world and to his existence. This has now morphed into an obsession to control, challenge, find sport and pleasure to not just live like the Jones, but know what they had for breakfast and what happy-hour they hit last.

    Long time since that of those first few men noticed a fallen tree could roll down an incline, led to the wheel and motorized travels. Beaver chewing down a tree and using their tail to pack mud in the fallen trees damming up a stream. Brought on the saw and shovel helping man progress. Ants working in team effort my have inspired man to massive projects like the pyramid’s, great wall of china and such.
    Now that technology is advancing life at such a rapid pace, leading us to where? This article of man noticing his world and to his existence in it.

    I SEE ONE THING in my life that technology has changed, I seem to live faster in aging, as I see my days just fly by into years. Now my decades pass as fast and I’d compare them to like that of the months long time frame as I’m recalling living in the 1970’s. Where the age related things happened to my youth, high school, drivers license, graduation, military service, and marriage then children.
    Those all took months, some months into years, but time never past as quickly then as I recall it as it does now with technology in my life.

  3. “I seem to live faster in aging,”
    That may be more a function of aging itself rather than of technology. It’s psychological. When we’re 10 or 15, 60 seems like millennia in the future. When we’re 60, weeks zip by in a blink of an eye.

    There is a saying that life is like a roll of toilet paper – the closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.

  4. So true.
    But, in the 70’s there just wasn’t that much to keep you home or indoors, (maybe the weather). You weren’t spied on from any cameras and microphones, or of a network connected device as your legs or auto took you places. Other than the over the air radio stations, you just wasn’t connected to anything outside of your personal world in that way as this article suggests…

    Now with a handheld technology as powerful to our concentrated realization of the world as it’s contained in the screens real estate in front of our face. Which as this article missed or simply didn’t go into, is a digital trail linking it back to us at it’s core, and got it right in the spying part of the internets connection factor. It’s not a one way mirror on it’s surface but a two way medium with many intersections. So a balancing act between use and harm.

    But “NO” matter if it’s a 5+” in your hand/pocket/home or a 70+” screen on the wall, (and everything in between) and then cause it beings of anything connected to something that’s connected to the internets network – it’s a spying device.
    A game then for some of those (millions of places you could go) or their connected intersections to the web as to harm and steal from you. Some are trying real hard to find and link to you.

    The example of life and being close to the end of the roll – is a rotation, revolution in non-straight paths. I can see technology doing this as the distance to discovery in your know how and understanding something shortens in the distance as technology advances. The outer rim of the circle spins slower than towards it’s center and so shortens the cycle. WHAT happens when technology is at the center of everything beings our life’s core – is life much shorter, but all so much more rewarding?
    Thanks :)

  5. CCTV and smartphone cameras are just the tip of the tracking iceberg. Recently I read an article on another site about four unexpected ways data is collected on us.
    1) Smartphone battery – the phones contain GPS hardware which can be turned off, emasculating many of the phone’s features. However, power consumption data can be used to track the phone.

    2) Car’s entertainment system – car makers track driver’s listening habits and location. Then they can serve location-related ads to the driver.

    3) Gas Stations and Carparks – credit card usage is tracked.
    BMW i3 (electric car) records the last 16 charging locations, 100 last parking spots and location every time the car is turned off or on.

    4) Ultrasonic signals – high pitched tone generators can and are embedded in just about everything- websites, retail stores, billboards, bus stops, airports, etc. People can’t hear the sounds but their smartphones can pick them up and report on the location to their makers. People might as well have tracking chips embedded in their bodies.

    For the past few weeks in our area, Optimum Online has been running an ad showing how quickly and how well they connect their users to the Internet. The ad shows European soccer superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, in his hotel room, in his skivvies, getting dressed (nothing risque). He goes out into the hall to retrieve the complimentary paper and he gets locked out of his room. Luckily, a maid is passing by and lets him back in. She also takes his picture with her phone. By the time Ronaldo finishes dressing, the video of him in the hall only in his skivvies, is not only online but has already made it onto the day’s TV news.

    While the situation in the ad is innocent, it portends a much darker future where anybody can be video’ed at any time doing almost anything. While viewed in context the action are innocent, posted online without context, they can at best be embarrassing and at worst could lead to investigations for a criminal act.

    • @ dragonmouth, with your 1) on smartphones, I’ve herd that a SIM card can be used as well to track a user – with the phone off. Battery pulled – I not sure if tracking can happen of the SIM card then.
      4) Ultrasonic signals: -can be in found TV’s and your computers too, then I’ve understood that your smartphone picks up on it linking to your shopping, if you should purchase that product later.
      (Phone on when in a brick and mortar store as I gathered in my reading).
      Mostly I’ve understood this is for an advertizing propose to paying a commission out. I can see where everything that’s used for personal tracking (e-tags, cookies – super/zombie, browser/device fingerprints) later used and/or developed for evil means or the controlling of users knowledge.
      Example: pricing, products, availability, geared time specific advertisements.
      There’s word of a company that (depending on the time of day) you’d open it’s email, you’ll see an advertisement different then that of initially sent to you – go figure…

      Cross-Device Tracking:
      Marketing companies are always on the lookout for new methods to track user activity on the Internet. The information is used to display targeted advertisement to users which have a better return than less-targeted ads.
      The more a company knows about a user, the higher the return and that is the main reason why companies step up the tracking game despite public outcry about it and the rise of ad-blockers.

      Cross-Device Tracking is yet another ingenious method to track users. As the name suggests, it has the capability to track users across devices. This is done by using high-frequency sounds that are inaudible to the human ear.
      The method links devices such as web browsers, mobile devices or TVs through the use of these sounds and browser cookies resulting in a combined tracking profile of the user across devices instead of just individual devices.
      The technique allows companies to track users even more, as they know for instance for how long specify TV ads are watched.
      SilverPush, one of the companies that uses cross-device tracking, monitors 18 million smartphones already as of April 2015.

      For those who are tracked, it is nearly impossible to tell if they are. These companies don’t offer opt-outs and there is no software available that blocks the transmission of high-frequency audio signals. Furthermore, it is unclear which apps, ads or companies make use of the technology. The technique is limited by distance first and foremost.
      It seems as well that only apps are used currently to pick up these audio signals, and that ads on the PC and TVs are merely used to push out these signals. The CDT letter of SilverPush revealed some information, including that the company’s software is used on 67 apps, and that “more than a dozen marketing companies” use cross-device tracking. [though since 2015 who knows]

      One recourse that users have is to limit microphone access on their mobile devices. The main issue here is that this is not available by default on many devices. While there are apps available that block the microphone altogether, they may cause usability issues as the microphone needs to be enabled to allow phone calls for instance.
      It is interesting to note that Cross-Device Tracking resembles badBios, a malware discovered in 2013 that uses inaudible sounds to bridge air-gapped computer systems
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      My take- Every since we became a push button world, we have lost something to our privacy, just for the sake in the ease of convenience. I believe having a good network software install to see what connections are taking place from your device.
      When using an app that accesses your network activity or app usage data always check its privacy policy. If the app is free and you see no way for it to make money then you and your data might be the product.

  6. Wake up people cause this is not sci-fi…
    Technologies main purpose is for profits – not to be for the convenient of users and at technologies core is the internet right now.
    Are we indeed headed for Orwellian society-(destructive to the welfare of a free and open society), that tracks every citizen’s movements, and some machines like seen in “Person of Interest” already exist (super-computers).
    If man can think it, he can develop it, and what says it hasn’t gone beyond any drafts and being implemented already in some forms today. Each new smart gadget and IoT device/appliance plays an important roll in the technological system.
    So what’s at the heart of the technological system? Would it not be the internet right now, but in the future even if you’d refuse to hook up to it, something being planned.
    Discoveries in the field – (like in electromagnetism/electromagnetics) that each person emits from their own person may be used, or something introduced at birth or by way of vaccines in early life, heck who knows the sinister and of the dark side that technology may be used for.

    In the future decades to generations in a families dna tree-line of this tracking movement and personal data being trapped (profiled) of today – what info. and traits are revealed of the families dna gene pool? When it’s grouped all together as an analysis and not looked at in a singular user based behavior? Someday, as it’s true now in these personal data profiles of users info. of our personal habits and likes-dislikes, family sickness, where employed and what field, an insurance claim
    made, to ones preferred sexual orientation – etc… When it’s collected throughout the decades in a families gene-line can be used against us or should I say our future generations – to all it’s evil measures.
    One such evil would be to using it in that of Orwellian society model, towards a families dna tree-line existence that has been expunged from the earth. Examples: If more than a few family members were incarcerated in the past 50 years, or family members that rose up against the government in protests
    on government policies and rallying others to do the same. Can you see where this can lead of the simple to extreme issues one could have with the governments that rule their democratic societies by draconianism technics and not to just represent their people.

    Algorithms even Artificial Intelligence or something not yet in existence today, may be used to classify us as an entire dna family line unit, as not fit for societies purpose or good. Think how fast technology advances today, each bit and byte stored to be analyzed in a profiled families data and dna that’s been collected over time, and for what good – to synthesize or discard us for society good. Knowledge is power, and absolute power is absolute corruption without a majority in control of it. In 3 generations into our future may be all it takes to loose control that may take 100’s of years to correct.

    I say Wake up people, cause there’s already genetically engineering to crops and livestock, what will follow? Dissidences, conspirators, human rights activist, and patriots may be next, all for the reasons in weeding out of society to make the governmental rulers stronger.
    People’s willingness to surrender their rights and liberties in lieu of technologies advancements, without understanding the path it’s to lead them down are just being blind. Someday you’ll be so caught up in it all you won’t know how to live without it. Then you won’t have a say or be able to look the other away from technologies conditioning.

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