Avoid Being Watched and Recorded by Sneaky Gadgets

Cameras, cameras, everywhere. When you go out in public these days, you can have no reasonable expectation of privacy. We’ve all known that for some time.

But what about in your own home? It’s certainly not reasonable to expect that cameras will be monitoring your behavior there.

Still, they could be. Setting aside the risk of hidden cameras being criminally placed in or around your home by a snoop, there is the risk that gadgets you or a family member innocently bring into the house contain cameras that are being activated without your knowledge.

The main items of concern are cell phones and laptop computers. Beware of laptops, smartphones, iPads, or other devices lent by a school or library. Some secretly “watch” users via the built-in camera. More commonly, built-in software tracks every keystroke, tap, swipe, or click made on the device. The software may be there for institutional “security” or it may have been put there maliciously by a previous user in order to steal information from subsequent users.

Buying a Used Computer? It’s a Bad Idea

For privacy reasons, never rent a computer or high-tech communications device or buy one used. In 2013, Aaron’s, the nation’s largest rental retailer, reached a settlement over customer complaints it used software to spy on its customers.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (October 26, 2013) reported, “After firmly denying that it used software on its rent-to-own computers to spy on customers – including capturing passwords, sensitive financial information and images of private intimate moments – Atlanta-based Aaron’s has owned up to the practice in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.”

The software automatically “monitored keystrokes, captured screenshots and activated computer webcams.”

Precautions to Take Around Public Computing Devices

If you ever find yourself needing to use someone else’s laptop or tablet – or a public computer at a library, hotel, or other facility – expect that your keystrokes will be logged by software installed by the owner or a hacker. Proceed with appropriate caution.

To prevent yourself from being watched by a surreptitiously activated webcam, simply cover the camera lens with a Post-it note (or whatever you have handy).

However, even when you can’t be seen, you might still be heard by a microphone. Around public computers, don’t discuss anything that is highly personal or sensitive in a voice louder than a carefully concealed whisper.

Your Biometric Profile

Your own smartphone and/or laptop may also be watching you. It can recognize your face. Apple, HP, Dell and other leading computer manufacturers now automatically include biometeric facial recognition technology in their laptops. Many new laptops now also come equipped with fingerprint scanners.

These biometric readers are ostensibly intended to improve security by thwarting password break-ins. But once your biometric data is stored on your laptop, what if the device is stolen and broken into? You’d potentially be giving a thief (or a government agent) an enhanced ability to steal your identity if he’s clever enough to extract what you’ve inputted.

If, for example, you use a thumbprint scan in lieu of passwords, then a criminal’s ability to appropriate your thumbprint scan could be a skeleton key for everything you’ve linked (or had linked by third parties) to your biometric profile. And if a fingerprint scanner malfunctions or fails to recognize your fingerprint, then you could be locked out of your own computer and/or accounts.

In theory, biometric security features that include fingerprints, face scans, and/or iris scans can help protect your privacy. But in practice, they could pose at least as much of a countervailing threat to your privacy. In general, to best safeguard your privacy, stay as “low-tech” as possible.