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How to Keep Your Private Information Private...Without Going Off the Grid

March 15th, 2017

Spying gadgets are a hot topic right now…as much the source of memes as serious conversation.  But politics and microwaves aside, there’s no denying that with the convenience of smart, always-connected devices comes some legitimate privacy concerns.

And since going off the grid isn’t a realistic option for most of us, we wanted to share tips for how to keep your private information private, while still embracing modern technology.

Understand and Adjust Your Privacy Settings

It’s important to educate yourself about the privacy settings for any device or social media account and then adjust them accordingly.  Best practice is always to offer the least amount of privilege necessary, but sometimes the default settings offer more access and it’s necessary to make adjustments in order to restrict them.

This was underscored with news of the recent Twitter hack, which is believed to have been caused by a third-party app.

Adjusting Social Media Accounts

The Settings menu for most social media accounts will lead you to a review of your Privacy settings, and they are generally simple to adjust.

For example, in Twitter, you’ll go to Settings and Privacy under your Profile.  From there, you can review and adjust your Privacy and Safety, and also decide which 3rd Party Apps can access your account.

In Facebook, you can access the Privacy options by going to the Settings menu, and then from the left clicking on Privacy.

Facebook Privacy Settings Expanded View.png


Doing a periodic review of your privacy settings in all of your accounts is a good habit to develop, because if not you may find that your account is giving access to apps that you didn't realize even had it, that you don’t use or that don’t even exist anymore, which can make them suspectible to hacks.

Adjusting Smartphones and Other Connected Devices

Without realizing it, many of the apps on your smartphone, tablet or other device could be accessing your location.  Most of them will request this access at the time of installation, and it’s easy to just click yes without thinking about what that means or even realizing what you've done. 

iPhone Location Services.pngAnd while it’s not for no reason – most of them use that data to provide a more custom, personalized experience – you just might not want every single app to be tracking your location at all times.

Being clear about what apps should and should not get that is critical, because if not you could be providing the location of your child’s school or where you live, just by posting a cute pic on Facebook.

This can easily be changed on the iPhone, by going to the Settings menu, selecting Privacy and then tapping Location Services.  That will reveal a list of all the apps that are – or aren’t – accessing your location and how often.

On the Google Pixel, you can open Settings, and then press the Apps button.  That will allow you to tap an app and then make adjustments to what it can access, including location, the microphone, etc.

We have previously written about Amazon Echo, and how the default settings on that device allow open access for voice-activated orderings.  You can require that a confirmation code be given to verify the purchase, but in order to make the experience as easy as possible for customers, the device’s default settings don’t require use of that code.


Tape Over Your Laptop’s Camera

Laptop w Webcam.jpgAnd while you’re at it, be careful about the microphone too.  You can disable the external microphone by sticking a plug from a broken pair of headphones into the jack.

This may sound like a joke or extreme paranoia, but even FBI Director James Comey has recommended covering over your webcam.  Putting black or opaque tape over the camera is a practical, easy step towards protecting your privacy. 

It’s smart to do because outside of hackers, creeps and criminals using it to spy on you, smartphone apps (or hackers) can access and turn on webcams and microphones when they want to, once you give them that permission.  It’s the reason that ordinary laptops and smartphones aren’t allowed inside any locations – government or contractor – where classified information is available.

This clearly represents the extreme end of caution, but if you truly want your conversation or actions to stay private, then it’s better safe than sorry where webcams are concerned.

Disable Voice Recognition Features

Most smartphones have this feature, but the rise in popularity of the Amazon Echo and even some smart TV’s are broadening its reach even further.

siri-voice activation.jpgOf course, what that means is that your devices are always “listening”.  They’re listening for the trigger phase that you need their help (Hey Siri, or Alexa), but all the same they are ALWAYS listening.

If that seems a little creepy, then you can always disable the voice recognition features, even just temporarily.  Or only turn that feature on when you need it.

With Alexa, you can do this by muting the device when it’s not in use, or turning off the microphone altogether.  This way the device won’t pick up your discussion (and record it).

On the iPhone, you can go to Settings > Siri to change those settings.  You can turn off just the “Hey Siri” command that wakes it up, or you can disable Siri altogether. 

Google Pixel allows the same types of options, and to access that you would hold the home button and then tap the icon that looks like 3 dots.  From there choose Settings and press the “OK Google” option.

Delete Your Amazon Echo Recordings

Amazon Echo White.pngThis popular device is one that offers a more personalized experience the more you use it, and the more it learns about your preferences. 

But in order to do that, it records your requests, commands, questions, etc. and stores them in a voice log.  That data is then analyzed and used to offer feedback that is tailored just for you.

So while Amazon doesn’t recommend this because it will impact your experience with the device, you can go into your account and delete those voice logs.  To access them via the Alexa app, go to Settings > History.  You can tap on a recording and then delete it. 

You can also access them on the “Your Devices” option from the website.  Select the device, and then choose “Manage Your Voice Recordings.”  You can delete select recordings only, or all of them.

Do Your Homework When It Comes to Connected Toys

Connected toys are all the rage these days.  And while they have their place, it’s important to be cautious and understand what kind of security they do – or don’t – have.

The story about the connected stuffed animals that left nearly 1 million customer credentials exposed, as well as about 2 million message recordings of children and parents is a great cautionary tale.  In that case, the data wasn’t even password-protected.

cloud Pets.pngAnother security researcher reported that anyone within range of a CloudPet could use its Bluetooth connection and use the toy to send and receive audio messages.  So complete strangers could talk through the toy, as well as listen.

Best bet when buying any smart toy is to research what data it collects, how it’s being stored, who has access to it, and if you can opt out or limit that access.  And always think twice before recording names, birthdates, or other personal information onto a connected toy.

It’s also a good opportunity to talk with your children about online safety, starting with the assumption that nothing on the Internet is ever truly private.

Protect Your IoT Devices

Internet of Things.pngIt’s not just laptops, smartphones or toys that are connected anymore.  Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT) our homes today are filling up with smart lightbulbs, thermostats, appliances, and security systems, just to name a few.  What many fail to realize is that these devices need to be secured in the same way that laptops and smartphones do.

And that’s because a poorly configured IoT device can give hackers unauthorized access to your entire home network.

Here are some of the things you can do to protect these devices:

  • Change the Default Password – any device that has a password should be changed to a secure, complex password and ideally it should be periodically updated.  It’s also not a bad idea to change the default name of the device, so that it’s not instantly recognizable.
  • Disable Universal Plug & Play – This setting is the default on nearly every connected device and the result is a hole in your router’s security.  So you want to check for the Universal Plug & Play features and switch them OFF.
  • Disable Remote Management – it’s unlikely that your home’s router needs remote management, so it’s best to disable this feature because it allows one computer to control another from a remote location.
  • Keep Software Updated – it may be a thermostat, but if it’s connected it’s also part computer and it’s definitely online and therefore it needs those patches applied in order to keep it safe from hackers. 

Follow Basic Security Protocols

Above all else, there are 3 standard pieces of advice that, if followed, will go a long way towards limiting your risks and keeping your private information private. 

They are:

Follow good password management protocols. 

This means using a complex, alpha-numeric password, not using the same password for multiple accounts, and changing your password on a regular basis.  And most definitely stop using "password" and "123456" as your password.

RELATED: Password Best Practices to Protect Your Business

Password Best Practices landing page image Version B.png

Keep your software up to date.

Those updates get released for a reason, and usually that reason is security.  Sometimes it improves the performance, but more often than not, they are patching up security holes that have known vulnerabilities.  Repeat - KNOWN vulnerabilities. So the hackers already know they exist.

RELATED: The Risky Business of Outdated Technology

Be cautious about what you share online. 

The very best way to keep your information private is by NOT sharing it online.  While that can’t always be avoided in this day and age where we bank, shop and work online, there is a difference between essential and non-essential online activities.  Know the difference, and you’ll have much greater peace of mind around your privacy, without having to completely disconnect.

RELATED:  Social Media Safety: 6 Things You Can Do To Limit Your Risks


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