Are your gadgets spying on you? Experts' advice on laptops, phones, smart speakers
SCI & TECH
By Mirror | March 10th 2020
From smartphones to central heating, technology now plays a crucial role in most people's daily lives.
But after owners of online baby monitors were hacked by cybercriminals, there are fears the high-tech devices we rely on so much can actually be used to spy on us.
Here, we ask experts if we are the targets of sinister snooping, how to stay safe and reduce the risks online.
You may rely on an Alexa or a smart speaker to play music, time the oven or turn lights off and on.
But this convenience comes at a price. Experts agree they can be a huge problem when it comes to privacy. Dr Garfield Benjamin, a post-doctoral researcher at Solent University, said: “Smart assistants are privacy nightmares. They can tell when you say ‘Hey Alexa’ by constantly listening in.”
Jake Moore, a cyber security specialist at internet security company ESET, agrees. He says: “If you’re going to buy a smart speaker, you’re effectively putting a surveillance bug in your home.
“They know a tremendous amount about us from these devices. They are there to hear you, say ‘Ok, Google ’ and ‘Hey, Siri’ to kick in and do what you want.
“Smart speakers use clever algorithms, it’s extremely valuable information, they can listen out to those words. It’s going to learn the characteristics.”
Dr Benjamin recommends turning your microphone off when not using your speaker or, if you are concerned, don’t have one at all.
Monitors connected to the net are now a major concern for privacy. Their security is under scrutiny after hackers could talk to kids through them.
The National Cyber Security Centre advises people to tweak settings and update the easy-to-guess passwords.
Dr Benjamin warns that even if you trust the makers security is not often a priority.
“They could have security vulnerabilities that might allow anyone on the internet to watch your kid or giving legitimate users access to each others’ feeds.
“There have even been cases of hackers being able to talk to children through the monitors.
“If you want a video monitor, try to choose one you can disable remote access. You should change default passwords and set up two-factor authentication to make it more difficult to hack into.”
He advised to research known security issues with the device or the firm before trusting it with video of your children.
Laptops can get infected with malware and other viruses.
Dr Benjamin says: “A particular risk with laptops is the fact that they have a built in camera. This creates a privacy risk.
“Even the former FBI director James Comey recommended covering over your laptop camera with tape – it’s something that he, Mark Zuckerberg and many security experts do. Laptops are quite complex systems and that adds security and privacy risks. There are risks with, for example, remote desktop software among others.
“These might allow hackers, companies or governments to gain access to your device.
“The best way to protect yourself is to keep your laptop up to date – updates often include the latest security patches. There is also a lot of good advice available, for example from Doteveryone’s “be a better internetter” campaign .
Like laptops, your phone is unlikely to be listening but Mr Moore says it is still “possible”. Your apps are more of a concern than the device. He says: “Are they listening? I’d have to say they’re not, but it is possible. It’s all about managing risk and how much of a target you are. A CEO of a big business is far more of a target than someone who isn’t high profile.”
Dr Benjamin says: “Smart phones often come with lots of pre-installed apps, and these can get around some of the restrictions that are usually put in place to protect users. For example, some of the Google Play Store safety restrictions that control app privileges can be bypassed with pre-installed apps. This is particularly common with cheaper phones. Best bet is to uninstall unwanted or unused apps.”
Smart home apps
Dr Benjamin says: “Smart homes are increasingly common but connecting your energy systems to the internet can be dangerous.
"There’s the risk your home could be hacked, but also privacy risks from the companies that manage these devices.
“Your central heating patterns can give away when you are home or away, whether that’s being off for a couple of weeks while you’re on holiday or the daily rhythms of your family. A 2012 study by German researchers showed that with just two 5-minute recordings of live energy use it was possible to tell which TV channel or film you were watching.
"Always check the privacy agreements when installing smart home devices and protect yourself by changing default passwords.
“You can often find security reviews online that analyse devices for other issues like hard coded admin passwords. As soon as you are sending utility information through a company’s server, you are exposing some of your daily habits to them.”
Mr Moore says social media apps, like Facebook , Twitter and WhatsApp, aren’t listening to us, but know a lot about us.
He says: “There are huge questions around social media apps listening in to your conversations.
“It’s not been officially proven but I don’t believe social media apps are listening, purely because if they were it’d be a huge scandal.
“It may not be listening into you but every time you post it’s reading the key words you’re writing about, the hashtags. If you post a photo of a baby a lot, they’re going to make the assumption you’re a new parent.
“You may say something in conversation then notice that advert coming in the next week. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been listening. It comes back to the algorithm. It’s incredible how much these firms know.”
Dr Benjamin says: “A problem can happen over time as apps seek more access to your device or data. This is known as ‘permission creep’ and often comes along with new functions.
“It’s good practice to check the permissions your apps have and disable any that feel unnecessary or invasive. As with phones, uninstall any apps you don’t use.”
Job search tips after your business fails
- No end in sight to high power bills
- Traditional vegetables gave me a fresh start in business
- Facebook to rebrand with new name
- Central Bank releases over Sh55b to rescue struggling local lenders
- Why cement makers shun local clinker for expensive imports