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That holiday tech gift that you unwrapped—a laptop, a tablet, or maybe a smartphone—is a gateway to fun and productivity in the new year. But for electronics manufacturers, it’s a new and better way to track your online life.
For example, many devices can track your location. That's useful for shopping and navigation apps, but it can also be used to target you with ads.
And today's technology is tracking consumers in increasingly inventive ways.
For example, some mobile games tap into smartphone microphones to listen in on what the users are watching on TV, The New York Times reported Friday. The apps, which include games popular with children, incorporate software from a startup called Alphonso that identifies audio signals in TV ads and shows, which people can't detect, even combining that information with location data, according to the Times. The data is used for ad targeting and metrics.
Alphonso said it couldn't immediately comment, but its CEO, Ashish Chordia, told the Times that consumers are informed of how data will be collected and used. When they first launch one of the apps, a pop-up window asks for permission to use the phone's microphone and explains that the app "uses audio to detect TV ads and content."
Nevertheless, privacy advocates say that many consumers may skip past the pop-ups without fully realizing how much data could be collected.
"This is an unusually clear example of companies collecting data in ways consumers would never expect," says Justin Brookman, the privacy and technology director for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports. "I think most users would find this surprising."
The good news? It's easy to take back a lot of privacy with a few simple clicks. And there’s never a better time than when you’re setting up a new device or tweaking the settings on one that’s almost new.
While you're choosing privacy settings that limit how much companies spy on you, it makes sense to protect your security, too.
First, create a screen lock on every device to protect your data from anyone who gets physical access to your device—whether it's lost or just sitting on your desk. Second, keep your software updated to make sure you benefit from fixes to security flaws.
Here are some more easy and straightforward settings you can adjust to increase your privacy on your shiny new device.
Boost Windows Privacy
"Windows 10 enables many reporting preferences that send Microsoft information about how you are using your computer," says Jay Little, principal security engineer for the New York-based data security firm Trail of Bits. If you'd rather not share that data with the computing giant, it's easy to prevent it while you're setting up your new PC.
During the initial setup of a Windows computer, you're given two options: Express installation and Customize.
While it's tempting to speed the process along by selecting Express, our experts encourage you to spend a few extra minutes and choose Customize.
"I wouldn't necessarily take all the defaults in Windows 10," Brookman says. "When it gives you the option to 'see more,' you should do just that."
You’ll then see a series of options under the categories of Location, Speech Recognition, Diagonistics, Tailored Experiences with Diagnostic Data, and Relevant Ads. The default option for all of these is On, but Little at Trail of Bits suggests starting out by defaulting to No for all of those options and then turning on individual options that you might like.
If you you plan to use Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant, for example, turn on Speech Recognition. If not, then don't. If you need more information on any of the choices, click the Learn More tab. The last two options—Tailored Experiences and Relevant Ads—are purely for marketing, so you're best leaving them turned off.
If you've already got your computer up and running, you can go back and tweak these privacy settings in System Properties. And it doesn't hurt to say No to all the options and then go back to share more data later if the need arises.
While you're in Settings, it's also a good time to make sure your machine's security settings are up to date. Create a "restore point" so you can revert to an earlier version of your operating system and your files if you fall victim to malware. To do this, start at System Properties, then open up the System protection tab, decide on a descriptive name for the restore point, and click on Create.
And last, install an ad-blocker in whatever browser you use.
"It's one of the biggest things you can do to protect your privacy and security," Brookman says.
For Windows and Mac laptops, he suggests Privacy Badger, Disconnnect.me, U Block, or Ghostery. (For mobile devices, Brookman recommends using Brave, a browser that includes built-in ad blocking.)
Make Your Macbook Less Nosy
The road to greater privacy for your Macbook begins with a visit to System Preferences, which can be found under the Apple tab at the top left or under the gear icon at the bottom of your screen.
Under the Settings tab, head to Security and Privacy.
While you’re there, you'll find a couple of easy security settings you should address. Turn on FileVault, which will encrypt your data (although don't forget the password or the access question, or you can lose access to your data), and the Firewall, which will protect your computer from unauthorized remote access.
Then open the Privacy tab on the far right. The menu on the left shows you which programs and apps want access to which functions.
If you're in a hurry, you can just uncheck Enable Location Services to keep all apps from getting access to your whereabouts. A better alternative could be to review the list and decide which programs should get which information. On my new Macbook Pro, for example, I allowed Weather to keep my location info but denied access for Siri.
From there you can make the same decisions about Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, and Accessibility. The last option is Analytics, which gives you the chance to share your information with Apple and with third-party developers. This doesn’t benefit you directly, so we suggest unchecking both boxes.
And last, go to Sharing, under System Preferences, and unclick any checked boxes, unless you're actively sharing information with other computers on a local network.
Dial Down iPhone/iPad Intrusions
Apple wants to know where your iPhone and iPad are. And by extension where you are. If you'd rather not share that information, go to Settings on the main screen of the device and then scroll down to Privacy.
The first option is Location Services.
One option is to turn it off completely, which prevents the device from reporting your location to individual apps (although it still allows you to use the Find My iPhone app).
But if you’re willing to spend 3 minutes, you can scan the applications asking to use your location and decide whether they really need to know where you are. Waze? Sure. ESPN? Probably not.
Below Location Settings on that same page are a variety of other functions, including Contacts and Camera, asking for the same kind of access. Scan the list to see which apps are asking for what access and ask yourself, “Is it necessary?”
Then, on the main Settings screen, you can scroll down to a list of every app on the phone. Click on an icon and you'll see all the permissions that the app is requesting, from the microphone to the camera to your contacts.
You know those gaming apps that allegedly are listening in the background while you watch TV? That's a good reason to turn off the microphone for each app that doesn't seem to need it.
Err on the side of turning off permissions. If your choice compromises the functionality of an app, you can always come back and change the setting later.
Don’t forget to scroll down to “Diagnostics & Usage” and “Advertising” and click on “Don’t Send” and “Limit Ad Tracking.” (Note that checking the "Limit Ad Tracking" option doesn't stop all tracking.)
Reduce Snooping by Android Devices
Just like iPhones, Android phones and tablets collect a lot of data about their users, then share it with the apps on the phone. Some apps—such as navigation tools—need access to location data and to the microphone if you want to enter destinations by voice.
But a lot of apps collect information that doesn't benefit the user but instead gets used in marketing deals that consumers may never hear about. That's why it's important to review what permissions each app is asking for, and to use your own judgment. You can do this by going to Settings and then to Apps. Click on each app in turn, and look at Permissions. As we already noted, if a children's animated game has permission to tap into your phone's mic, that's probably a bad sign.
When in doubt, limit the amount of information an app collects. If you discover that it keeps the app from working the way you want, you can always add the permission later.
While intrusive apps can affect both iOS and Android phones, the problem may be worse with Android phones, partly because of the more open nature of the operating system and the fact that multiple versions of Android are being used by various phone makers.
One way to stay safer is to stick to apps acquired through the Google Play store rather than from third-party sites. Google says it does at least some vetting of the software for security and privacy concerns. (That vetting isn't foolproof, as researchers discovered in August and in 2016.)
And there's a way to turn off all access to apps outside the Google Store. This is especially useful if you've got kids who might install a potentially harmful app on your phone while they're searching for a new game.
Go to Settings on the main screen, and then proceed to the security tab. From there, checking Disable Unknown Sources will prevent your Android device from installing questionable apps.
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