Businesses of all kinds track your movements around the web via these sneaky little bits of data, which are designed to be harmless to your computer’s security in exchange for being allowed on most computers by default.
Though this information is typically only used to market ads to people more effectively, web cookies themselves are so common, and so rarely noticed, that it’s hard not to see them as a little sinister once you do stop and think about them..
2) Unsecured WiFi
Never got around to securing that WiFi router you set up at home? Then there’s a pretty good chance anyone nearby can see at least some of what you do online – and what you have on your computer, particularly in shared folders.
Anybody who’s ever run iTunes in a college dorm, only to have other people’s shared playlists pop up next to theirs, can attest to how common this problem is. Of course if you are up to something shady, an open WiFi network can give you a bit of plausible deniability, by allowing you to claim someone else did it using your unsecured connection. We wouldn’t count on that defense holding up for very long, though. It’s best to just play it safe and secure your network.
Sometimes webcams are publicly available online by design, like city sidewalk cameras. However, most of the times, they’re work, school, or private home cameras that the owner neglected to secure from the prying eyes of the internet.
Even with security measures, many cameras can be hacked with ease, and even highly secure cameras can be illicitly activated by the FBI. Whatever the case, the fact remains that when you step in front of a webcam – whether on a city street or in your own bedroom – you never know who might be watching. So the next time you see someone with a bit of masking tape over their laptop camera, don’t laugh – ask them for a spare piece.
4) Online purchases
Yes, even secure purchases are being watched, we can practically guarantee it. But they’re not being watched by sneaky hackers or foreign governments – at least, we hope not.
Instead, it’s credit card companies who do the monitoring.
This is perfectly legal under the terms of the impossibly dense cardholder agreement they made you sign when you got your card. Of course, card companies have a valid reason to require access to the details of your purchases. The iffy part is that this information can be bundled and sold as a marketing product to advertising companies.
The practice isn’t exclusive to the internet, but internet commerce has made it a whole lot easier. Combined with all the other data you’re leaving behind as you browse the web, it’s likely that there’s now an ad agency out there somewhere who knows more about you than your parents.
Much like webcams, computer microphones often have lax security. They’re one of those bits of hardware that most people don’t think about very much, making them a tempting target for spies. It doesn’t take a lot of effort for a determined hacker to turn on your computer’s microphone without your knowledge – and unlike cameras, a piece of adhesive tape won’t do much to prevent a microphone from picking up sounds.
In cell phones, where the microphone is still an important and vital piece of the device, security is somewhat better, but any web-connected phone is still vulnerable to serious hackers like the NSA. If you really, really want to ensure your privacy, it’s best to leave the smartphones behind, too.