By Gillian Murphy, G11
For weeks, my still-packaged Google Home sat on my desk, staring at me. Ever since I had cheerily unwrapped it on Christmas morning, I had been hesitant to plug it in. At the risk of sounding like a technophobe who is behind on the times, I’ll admit it: technology scares me sometimes. And my fears are not unfounded, as news cycles continue to prove: Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, TikTok’s ties to China, reports of Amazon’s Ring security cameras being hacked … it often feels like we live in some sort of dystopian techno-world gone wrong. My persisting question though, the one that hounded me while I debated opening up my Google Home, is: how much should we really fear technology?
It is obvious that you cannot escape technology in the modern world. Many of us consistently rely on tech products throughout our daily lives, now more than ever. And it is far too easy to download new apps, create new social media accounts, and try out new trends without giving a second thought to the repercussions of becoming overly imbedded online. Take FaceApp, for example: a few months ago, an app that ages you with the use of artificial technology to give grey hair and wrinkles. Pictures of this trend were shared on nearly every social media, and people were quick to jump on the bandwagon. During the rush to download the app, rumours began to circulate that the app was sharing user data with the Russian government – rumours that were somewhat proven false, but revealed how much liberty the app had with the photos and information people shared. According to a Washington Post article about the app’s terms, it was given “the right to do whatever it wants” with everyone’s uploaded faces. And this data-sharing ability is just one unsettling facet of privacy in technology.
The most recent tech-privacy controversy has emerged in the midst of coronavirus, while schools and companies worldwide are attempting to find ways to connect online. From the start of e-learning and social distancing, Zoom has been perhaps the most prominent site for group calls. But this week, scandal surrounded the app as reports poured in of “zoombombing,” with hackers entering calls and sharing racist and sexist remarks as well as explicit images. Several lawsuits have been filed against the company for “inadequate data privacy and security measures,” and many governments and companies have either banned the use of Zoom for their citizens/employees or warned against it. Though this is upsetting and frightening, there is a quick fix: stop using Zoom and switch to a more secure video calling service like Skype or Google Meets, which has touted its superior security protocol in the midst of Zoom’s troubles. But what can be done when the rest of your technology is listening to you too?
It seems that all the headlines about technology and privacy are written to induce paranoia from the first few words in: “Alexa has been eavesdropping on you this whole time” and “Of Course Your Phone Is Listening To You.” Without even reading the articles, I felt dread seeping in. After some research though, it seems technology tracks your information in different ways than might first come to mind. There most likely is not a hacker or an FBI agent hunched over in a dark room replaying your conversations or watching footage from your computer camera 24/7, but apps, social media companies, and advertisers have surprisingly easy access to your personal details. When downloading apps or creating social media accounts, there is a lot of fine print about security most people skim over. Algorithms track your every move to target you with ads, and some social media have “trigger words” that phone microphones pick up on when spoken in order to start recording you. This is why you may encounter a lot of disconcerting coincidences of ads popping up in your feed about something you recently googled or discussed.
The general consensus is that most companies have access to the technology that would allow them to actively listen through your phone and pick up snippets of audio, but we cannot be certain if they are actually utilizing this technology. Though this lack of privacy may be somewhat shocking, chances are companies do not care much about what you say for reasons other than to target you with advertisements. If you are handling confidential information, perhaps because of a government-related job or other secretive purposes, then perhaps it is best to save that information for in-person conversations rather than risk it being overheard.
Although my brief venture into the world of tech privacy was not quite comforting, I do believe being educated about your information online is the first step of being in control of what you share on the internet. The fact of the matter is, it is nearly impossible to avoid technology and potential situations that put your online identity at risk, but there are many steps you can take to keep your privacy secure. Perhaps avoid apps like TikTok or Zoom that blatantly steal or do a poor job of protecting your data, and research apps extensively before clicking “download.” If it makes you feel more comfortable, live without virtual assistants and turn off Siri. Refrain from putting too much information about yourself online, and make sure your accounts are private. The hard truth is that technology is most likely infiltrating your life in some manner, but to be aware and careful as you navigate the world of tech is already a great start to protecting yourself.
Here are two articles to guide you through protecting yourself online: