Apply caution measures with new technology and old, unused accounts
by Peter Vogel
Photo Caption: Smart devices offer opportunity for data collection and privacy concerns. Remember to take careful, and seemingly unnecessary precautions to protect against virtual espionage. ( designpics.com )
It’s a bit much when U.S. presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway suggests microwave ovens, a staple of North American kitchens, could be used to spy on unwitting citizens. However, in this age of smart devices, it is probably wise to take stock of just what is possible, or perhaps already underway, and have some sort of mitigation plan in place.
Let’s look at a few areas, other than microwave ovens, that might be of actual concern.
For your mobile device, especially so on the Android platform, only install applications from the approved online stores. Even then, check out reviews and think carefully about apps that demand unnecessary privileges.
A recent case in point was a popular selfie-editing application by the name of Meitu. It turned out Meitu was sending back all sorts of device information to its development group in China.
Even if companies behind these data-harvesting apps say they are using the information to improve their software and service, there is every reason to be skeptical.
It is also probably good practice to remove apps from your mobile device once they haven’t seen use in several months. In all likelihood, your phone is like mine: packed with applications you used once and then forgot about.
If possible, use two-factor authentication with your most sensitive applications, be it on mobile or on your desktop or laptop computer.
Use some sort of password manager so that you don’t use the same email/password combination across multiple services. That at least gets you beyond the problem faced by victims of some of the massive account data breaches of the past few years.
It wasn’t so much the breach itself that caused problems. It’s that people were using the same authentication combination at other, more sensitive services.
Want to know if your email address is part of some of the bigger data breaches that have been well-covered in the technical media? Go to haveibeenpwned.com and key in all the email addresses you use. You may be surprised.
How about dormant accounts – accounts you set up years ago and have perhaps long forgotten? It’s a good idea to delete these accounts. And it may involve some effort. Some services don’t have an obvious “delete account” action on their site. Send an email to the service requesting that your account be fully and completely deleted.
Let’s talk TVs for a moment. We do know certain smart TVs – those operating with an Internet connection – were compromised so their built-in cameras and microphones could be activated remotely without the owner’s knowledge.
For now, it is best to assume smart TVs have weak security. You may be better off with a streaming device add-on such as Apple TV or a Roku. At least you will be getting a device from a company that has security expertise.
Just to be safe, turn off the wi-fi for that smart TV and disconnect it from the ethernet. And turn off voice recognition if it is so-equipped. In other words, use it as a basic, or “dumb,” TV.
As if TVs weren’t problem enough, there has been discussion of late, and a convincing demonstration, about the possibility of fingerprints being lifted from high-quality publicly posted photos. Those fingerprint images are then used to produce secondary prints that can be used with fingerprint readers, thereby facilitating impersonation.
Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? But presumably, scammers could automate the process of scanning image collections, looking for hand images, thereby building up a database of fingerprints.
Of course, as mentioned, those images need to be of high quality. Well, that’s exactly what we get out of the newest round of big smartphones, such as those from Apple and Samsung. So, implausible as it sounds that fingerprints can be lifted from images, it may be prudent to keep your hands out of photos that are going to be publicly posted!
As for that microwave oven, forget Kellyanne Conway’s warning. Go right ahead and use it to warm up your coffee or to make popcorn. It’s not spying on you!
Follow me on Facebook (facebook.com/PeterVogelCA) and on Twitter (twitter.com/PeterVogel).