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7 Easy Ways to Stop Your Gadgets From Spying on You

Mar 13, 2017

From televisions to toasters, all kinds of devices are getting hooked up to the Internet. That's bringing convenience, like air conditioning systems that can be activated remotely while you're on your way home from work. But it's also bringing new privacy concerns, as anything connected to the Internet tends to attract the attention of hackers.

Case in point: Documents recently released by Wikileaks suggest the Central Intelligence Agency can use spying targets' TVs against them, turning the sets into always-listening microphones. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, also recently claimed that microwaves could also be used as spying devices, though she has since walked back those comments. Other "smart" devices, meanwhile, have been caught secretly tracking their users' behavior and reporting that information back to the company that made them.

While it's unlikely that your Mr. Coffee is a secret government spy, it's still smart to take your personal privacy seriously. Here are seven things you can do to protect yourself in our increasingly connected world:

Create strong passwords, and change them often

The best passwords are difficult to guess and include a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters. But most importantly, never reuse passwords for multiple accounts — doing so could make it easier for hackers to gain access to multiple services and devices.

If you're worried about forgetting your new password or can't think of a strong one, try using a password service like LastPass or 1Password. These apps generate complex passwords on your behalf, which you can manage with one master password. On a related note, use Two-Factor Authentication whenever possible.

Tape up your laptop's camera

Covering your computer's camera may not stop a hacker from taking it over, but it will help ensure that they don't obtain any private footage they can use against you. Hackers can gain access to your webcam and more through a type of software known as a Remote Administration Tool, or RAT. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg keeps his laptop camera taped up.

If you want something a little more aesthetically pleasing than tape, you can try one of these webcam covers.

Choose which smartphone apps can access your location

Many apps request to use your location in order to provide better services. Facebook, for example, will use your location to let you check in to a particular place or tag where a photo was taken. But you may not want every app to know where you are at all times.

On the iPhone, you can individually choose whether specific apps have access to your location all the time, only while you're using the app, or never. To do this, open the Settings menu, choose Privacy, and tap Location Services. From there, you will see a list of each app that's accessing your location and to which degree they're doing so.

On the Google Pixel, launch Settings, and then press the Apps button. From here, you'll be able to tap an app to edit whether it can access location, your phone's microphone, and more. (These instructions might vary slightly depending on the Android device you're using.)

Keep your software up to date

Whether it's for your phone, computer, or anything else, you should always make sure you're using the latest software version possible. Software updates commonly bring critical security fixes that fix lapses hackers love to exploit.. An option to check for software updates can usually be found in your device's settings menu.

Turn off your TV's tracking features

Some smart TVs may be logging more information about your viewing habits than you realize. TV maker Vizio, for example, recently paid $2.2 million to the Federal Trade Commission to settle charges it was monitoring the content viewers watched without their consent and then selling that data to advertisers. Back in 2015, Samsung was embroiled in a controversy about certain models of its smart TVs listening in on conversations in order to provide voice control features.

While disconnecting your smart TV from the Internet entirely is the best way to ensure that sensitive data won't be transmitted, doing so can notably limit its functionality. Some TV manufacturers allow you to disable specific data-collecting features, as Wired explains here. On Vizio TVs, for instance, navigating to Menu > System > Reset & Admin > Smart Interactivity and toggling it to "off" should do the trick.

Turn off your phone's voice recognition features

While some smart TVs have voice recognition capabilities, there's a much bigger chance that your smartphone has them. Newer Android models that include the Google Assistant and iPhones that support Apple's "Hey Siri" feature listen for a trigger phrase in order to answer questions and fulfill requests without requiring a button press.

If this makes you uncomfortable, you can turn off this functionality for the Google Assistant by pressing and holding the Google Pixel's home button, tapping the icon that looks like three dots, and choosing "settings." Then press the "OK Google" detection option. For the iPhone, head over to Settings > Siri > Allow "Hey Siri."

Delete your Amazon Echo recordings

If you own an Amazon Echo, chances are you've already embraced the concept of gadgets listening to your conversations. Amazon stores your voice logs in order to better adapt to your preferences. However, you can delete your voice request history through the Alexa app by going to Settings > History. From there, you can tap a recording to delete it.

You can also do this by visiting the Amazon Connect and Devices website, clicking the Your Devices tab, choosing your Echo or Fire TV, and then selecting "manage your voice recordings."

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