Keeping your data private: a deep look at how your personal information is collected

How do I know if I’m being watched? Is there a way to tell if my computer is bugged? Is someone spying on me right now? These are some of the common questions people have started asking themselves (and Google). Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always clear.

For most of us, online surveillance has become a way of life: whether you’re downloading a new app, signing up for an online service or finding a faster route to work, your information is almost always being exchanged. In fact, it’s safe to safe to assume that everything you do online leaves a trace. Whether someone picks up the trail is a different story.

Consumer data has quickly become the next financial frontier, quietly surpassing oil to become the world’s most valuable commodity. This might leave you feeling a bit hopeless, but there are ways to actively fight back and regain control of your privacy.

Here are some of the main ways your privacy may be exposed—and what you can do about it.

Security settings missing from your smart devices

Studies show that the one in three consumers owns at least two smart devices. From your foldable tablet to your fitness tracker to even your smart TV, these gadgets help increase your day-to-day productivity at the expense of your privacy.

Case in point: Your smartphone tracks and records your physical location; your smart fitness tracker records any and all health issues; and your smart TV, which on the surface may seem innocuous, is secretly analyzing the shows you watch, and sometimes even recording your conversations.

The NSA (national security agency) routinely uses your smart devices to monitor and track your location. Perhaps worse, with the abundance of smart devices flooding the market, hackers are becoming more adept at finding flaws in the design software to monitor and track your every move.

The free apps you download may be making money off of you

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg was the subject of much ridicule after a seemingly innocuous Instagram post he made back in 2016 inadvertently showed his laptop with a piece of tape over the webcam. It may have looked amateurish, but for most privacy experts, a little effort goes a long way.

That’s because many apps—some you’re probably evening using right now—routinely access and monitor your device’s webcam and microphone. When you download a new app and you accept its request to access your webcam, you’re voluntarily handing over your privacy.

In a 2017 report, tech writer Felix Krause detailed all the ways these apps can secretly access your camera. Among the laundry list of examples, some of the most profound include taking pics and videos without notifying you, accessing your cameras remotely and more.

If you’re concerned about your apps accessing your mics and cameras secretly, it’s best to cover your devices when not in use. Fitted webcam covers are readily available online and usually cost less than $10; for your microphone, be sure to turn it off when you’re not using it.

Spying programs the government uses to keep track of citizens

There’s no question the government is spying on you. In fact, there are troves of data and documents that detail not only how the government conducts citizen surveillance, but also why. In the U.S., the NSA routinely collects the following: email information, social media activity,  info, and high-level metadata, which could include sites visited, time spent on a specific page and more. In the UK, citizens’ internet traffic is routinely collected and intercepted for government use.

When you combine these realizations with the onslaught of new services that require consumers to willingly hand over their intimate information, you’re left with a heavily saturated market that’s highly destructive to personal privacy.

DNA testing kits that require users to sign up by literally submitting their DNA is another example of a growing trend in cognitive dissonance. These companies collect troves of consumer data and then sell this information to pharmaceutical firms and other analytics companies.

And while there’s currently no evidence to suggest the government has access to these databases, it’s safe to assume they do.

Social media services that use your privacy as currency

It’s no surprise most internet companies routinely collect and market your personal details. Companies like Facebook have been in hot water recently over their growing list of data scandals. These companies have created an entire business model on profiting off your data. As CEO Mark Zuckerburg put it best, “Facebook runs ads.” These ads, which are highly targeted to your personal interests, wants, needs and desires, are developed by third parties that are collecting, scrutinizing and sharing your personal information.

In fact, a good rule of thumb is this: If you’re not paying for a service, then you’re the product. Make no mistake, Facebook and other social media sites make money off you, which they sell to analytics companies which, in turn, sell to marketers where they can profit again by making ads.

While there’s no denying the fact that sites like Facebook makes money off your private details, there’s still a disconnect as to who they sell your information to and how it’s used. The amount of interchangeable hands that touch your data also raises the question of security—or, more appropriately, how this data is handled. As proven time and again, even the biggest companies are vulnerable to hacking.

Lapses in software security 

And then there’s the issue of whether your particular devices are secure. Malicious software is on the rise, and it’s one of the easiest ways for hackers to access a victim’s network.

Common types of malware include trojan horses, spyware and adware. While each example operates in a different fashion, they all work to collect, expose and manipulate your privacy.

Trojan horses, which occurs a user is tricked into installing harmful software, are usually found in the form of a phishing email or random link. Hackers typically go to great lengths to make their fake emails look and read as authentic as possible, even copying a company logo or using the same type, size, and style of the text. The user, thinking the attachment is from a friend or a known company, opens the emails, clicks on the link and inadvertently grants the hacker access into their network.

Spyware and adware, on the other hand, are both created outside the victim’s purview and tend to gather collect and distribute their information. Spyware needs to be manually implanted in the victim’s device, while adware can typically be blocked with a reputable ad blocker.

Regardless of how harmful or harmless the various types of malware are, they are all created and used to spy on you in some way or form.

Outdated devices, older models and more

While they may be seen as a burden for most, system updates and software patches are one of the most efficient and well-rounded ways to help keep your devices safe.

Whenever a security breach or design flaw is exposed, system engineers work quickly to fix the issue, which is then usually rolled up in the form of a software patch or system update. While some updates may be automatic (Mac devices routinely go through automatic updates every few months), others require a manual installation.

Continually putting off the system update, or refusing to patch your computer could inadvertently open your network up to attackers. In fact, the WannaCry ransomware attack, which ravaged some 230,000 PCs back in 2017, was only able to target computers running older versions of Windows because the newer system updates had already corrected that flaw.

Checking in on unsecure connections

Sure, you may have your firewall set up and your security software up to date, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re browsing on a public network. Coffee shops, airports, and restaurants are all known for providing free WiFi. However, once you’re connected, there’s really no way to tell which networks your data passes through or which third parties have laid eyes on it.

Experts suggest users refrain from accessing financial sites or entering personal details on an open network. In addition to the added online congestion, the risk of data theft is typically much higher. If you’re connected to an open network for work reasons, you may want to think about using a VPN (virtual private network).

Simple tips to help protect your privacy

Keep your devices updated, cover your webcams, turn off your microphones and limit the amount of information you divulge online. Yes, that’s a good start, but you can go even deeper.

Setting up 2-factor authentication so hackers can’t access your personal accounts, limiting the types of applications your apps are able to access, and using a VPN each and every time you connect to a public network can all go a long way toward helping you remain more secure.

But more than anything else, it’s best to approach new trends, products and developments with a heavy dose of skepticism. Studies have found a direct link between the number of smart devices hitting the market and the rise of data theft.

With so many companies touting new and easy ways to stay connected, it’s best to take the time to look over the settings and ensure your personal information—from the sites you visit to the apps you use—remains private.