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Beware the smart toaster: 18 tips for surviving the surveillance age

Alex Hern // 06th April 2018
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Beware the smart toaster: 18 tips for surviving the surveillance age” was written by Alex Hern and Arwa Mahdawi, for The Guardian on Wednesday 28th March 2018 05.00 UTC

On the internet, the adage goes, nobody knows you’re a dog.

That joke is only 15 years old, but seems as if it is from an entirely different era.

Once upon a time the internet was associated with anonymity; today it is synonymous with surveillance. Not only do modern technology companies know full well you’re not a dog (not even an extremely precocious poodle), they know whether you own a dog and what sort of dog it is. And, based on your preferred category of canine, they can go a long way to inferring – and influencing – your political views.

Just over a week ago, the Observer broke a story about how Facebook had failed to protect the personal information of tens of millions of its users. The revelations sparked a #DeleteFacebook movement and some people downloaded their Facebook data before removing themselves from the social network. During this process, many of these users were shocked to see just how much intel about them the internet behemoth had accumulated. If you use Facebook apps on Android, for example – and, even inadvertently, gave it permission – it seems the company has been collecting your call and text data for years.

It’s not me, it’s you! So Facebook protested, in the wake of widespread anger about its data-collection practices. You acquiesced to our opaque privacy policies. You agreed to let us mine and monetise the minutiae of your existence. Why are you so upset?

Facebook’s surprise at our outrage is not unreasonable. For years, technology companies have faced very little scrutiny as they mushroomed in size and power. Finally, however, the tide is turning. We seem to have reached a watershed moment when it comes to public attitudes towards the use of our private information. We are more aware of the implications of our online behaviour than ever before.

Awareness of our digital footprint is one thing, but what are we to do about it? In the wake of the Facebook revelations, it’s clear that we can’t all keep clicking as usual if we value our privacy or our democracy. It’s still relatively early in the internet era and we are all still figuring it out as we go along. However, best practices when it comes to security and online etiquette are starting to emerge. Here’s a guide to some of the new rules of the internet.

1. Download all the information Google has on you

You may well have downloaded your Facebook data already; it has become something of a trend in recent days. Now take a look at what Google has on you. Go to Google’s “Takeout” tool and download your data from the multiple Google products you probably use, such as Gmail, Maps, Search and Drive. You’ll get sent a few enormous files that contain information about everything from the YouTube videos you have watched, your search history, your location history and so on. Once you’ve seen just how much information about you is in the cloud, you may want to go about deleting it. I highly recommend deleting your Google Maps history, for a start, unless you are particularly eager to have a detailed online record of everywhere you have ever been. You may also want to stop Google from tracking your location history. Sign in to Google, open Maps, then click on “timeline” in the menu. At the bottom, there’s an option to manage your location history.

2. Try not to let your smart toaster take down the internet.

These days you can buy a “smart” version of just about anything. There are connected toasters, which let you personalise your toast settings and notify your phone when your breakfast is ready. There are Bluetooth-enabled forks, which vibrate when you are eating too quickly. There are internet-connected umbrellas, which alert you if it looks like it’s going to rain. There are even smart tampons, which let you monitor your flow.

Not only are most of these gadgets unnecessary and expensive, most of them have shoddy security and are a liability. In 2016, for example, hackers created a zombie army of internet-connected devices and used them to take down large parts of the internet, including sites such as Netflix, Facebook, Spotify and the Guardian. So think twice about whether you really need to buy that fancy connected gadget. There’s enough to worry about today without having to wonder if your toaster is plotting against you.

3. Ensure your AirDrop settings are dick-pic-proof

If you are an iPhone user, turn off your AirDrop function while in a public place or limit it to contacts. This stops strangers on the train from sending you unsolicited dick pics via AirDrop, which is a thing that actually happens because of course it does.

4. Secure your old Yahoo account

You may have an old email account you never use any more and can’t be bothered to delete. That email account is a treasure trove of personal information just waiting to be hacked; indeed, if it’s a Yahoo account it was hacked in 2013. You don’t need necessarily to delete your old account but you should secure it. Change the password and turn on two-step verification. Make sure you’ve disconnected any linked services (such as cloud storage) in your settings.

5. 1234 is not an acceptable password

Nor is “password”. Nor is “monkey” – which, for some reason, is one of the most popular passwords there is. The most secure passwords are very long ones, so start thinking in terms of “passphrases” instead of password. For example, “nomonkeyisnotagoodpassword” would take a computer 128 undecillion years to crack.

6. Check if you have been pwned

“Pwned” is internet-speak for, among other things, having your email account compromised in a data breach. It’s a good idea to check this regularly. Simply go to haveibeenpwned.com, enter your email address, and the website will let you know if and when your details have been compromised so you can take appropriate action such as changing your password.

7. Be aware of personalised pricing

We’re all familiar with dynamic pricing – the annoying way in which airline ticket prices fluctuate according to supply and demand. Increasingly, however, we’re seeing the rise of “personalised pricing”, as retailers analyse our data to gauge how much we’re likely to pay and charge us accordingly. Uber, for example, knows that you’re more likely to pay surge pricing if your phone battery is about to die – although they claim not to have acted on this information. And Staples has displayed different prices to customers based on their location. It’s hard to know just how widespread personalised pricing is as retailers are understandably discreet about it. However, you should assume that it’s happening. So, before making a big purchase online you might want to see if using a different device or using the incognito or private mode in your browser has any effect on the price. There are also tools you can download that let you spoof your location. It’s the modern equivalent of haggling.

8. Say hi to the NSA guy spying on you via your webcam

Even spooks need a little social interaction.

9. Turn off notifications for anything that’s not another person speaking directly to you

Sometimes this will be easy: is it a single-player game? It doesn’t need notifications at all. You can find out if you’ve got more gems, or extra energy – or whatever other fake currency the game hopes you will care about – in your own time, not when it wants to drive your engagement. Other times, this will be harder. Instagram’s rubbish – “a famous dog just posted a picture that received 12 likes” – can be turned off, but you’ll have to dig down in the settings to find it. Are there exceptions? Sure. The odd breaking news alert never hurt anyone, and maybe you really do want to let Duolingo prod you to practise your Spanish. But if you would be annoyed by a robot calling you up to tell you something, why are you letting it interrupt your thought process in another way?

10. Never put your kids on the public internet

Maybe it’s fine to upload pics to a shared (private) photo album, or mention their day in a group DM. But if it’s public, Google can find it. And if Google can find it, it’s never going away. How are you going to tell your child in 16 years’ time that they can’t get a drivers’ licence because Daddy put a high-res photo of their iris online when they were two and now they trip alarms from here to Mars?

11. Leave your phone in your pocket or face down on the table when you’re with friends

Unless you want to signal, repeatedly and obviously: “I would rather be hanging with someone else than you.”

12. Sometimes it’s worth just wiping everything and starting over

Your phone, your tweets, your Facebook account: all of these things are temporary. They will pass. Free yourself from an obsession with digital hoarding. If you wipe your phone every year, you learn which apps you need and which are just sitting in the background hoovering up data. If you wipe your Facebook account every year, you learn which friends you actually like and which are just hanging on to your social life like a barnacle.

13. An Echo is fine, but don’t put a camera in your bedroom

Do we really need to break this one down?

14. Have as many social-media-free days in the week as you have alcohol-free days

This can be zero if you want, but know that we’re judging you.

15. Retrain your brain to focus

Save up your longreads using Instapaper or Pocket and read them without distraction. Don’t dip in and out of that 4,000-word article on turtles: read it in one go. Or maybe even try a book!

16. Don’t let the algorithms pick what you do

You are not a robot, you are a human being, and exercising your own free will is the greatest strength you have. When that YouTube video ends, don’t watch the next one that autoplays. When you pick up your phone in the morning, don’t just click on the stories at the top of Apple News or Google Now. Exercise choice! Exercise freedom! Exercise humanity!

17. Do what you want with your data, but guard your friends’ info with your life

Yes, you should think twice before granting that fun app you downloaded access to your location or your photo library. Do you trust it not to do weird things with your pictures? Do you know it won’t track your every movement? But ultimately, those are your decisions, and they are for you to make. But your friends’ data isn’t yours, it’s theirs, and you are a trusted custodian. Don’t think twice before authorising access to your address book, or your friends’ profiles: think five or six times, and then don’t do it.

18. Finally, remember your privacy is worth protecting

You might not have anything to hide (except your embarrassing Netflix history) but that doesn’t mean you should be blase about your privacy. Increasingly, our inner lives are being reduced to a series of data points; every little thing we do is for sale. As we’re starting to see, this nonstop surveillance changes us. It influences the things we buy and the ideas we buy into. Being more mindful of our online behaviour, then, isn’t just important when it comes to protecting our information, it’s essential to protecting our individuality.

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