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Device spying: What does your device know about you?

<p>Most of us interact with technology every single day, and the latest devices, like Amazon Echo and Google Home, involve even more human interaction. You talk to them, they answer you back, but just how much are they hearing? Madison Cavalchire finds out what your smart device knows about you and how you can protect yourself.</p>

Madison Cavalchire

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Most of us interact with technology every single day, and the latest devices, like Amazon Echo and Google Home, involve even more human interaction. You talk to them, they answer you back, but just how much are they hearing? Madison Cavalchire finds out what your smart device knows about you and how you can protect yourself.

If you're like Jessica Merkel, you do everything from your smartphone, but the difference is she always reads the fine print.

"No one ever reads them," Merkel said. "You just click OK because you don't want to sit there wasting your time, but it's not very smart."

Middle Georgia State University professor and information technology expert Johnathan Yerby agrees.

"Every device, every application, has a terms and services that we agree to when we start using those devices," Yerby said.

When you choose to use, Yerby says you're choosing to give up some of your privacy.

"A recent law change allows ISPs, or your internet service providers, to sell your browsing history," Yerby said. "They may not per se sell your specific history, but what they do is they build profiles of your age, your location, your gender, your browsing habits, and they can sell that information."

Yerby says encryption browsing, like going incognito on your laptop, doesn't fully protect your private information. Even though the information isn't visible on your device, your internet service provider still has access to it.

"Your best method to possibly hide, or conceal, or obfuscate your activity, is to use encryption through something like a VPN, a virtual private network," Yerby said.

A VPN is a service that makes your web browsing more secure. Yerby says you can buy one or download one online for free.

If you're interested in downloading a VPN, Yerby says you can click here to check out some free options.

Merkel says she protects her privacy using settings on her smart phone. On an iPhone, under privacy, there's a setting for advertising.

"You can actually limit your ad tracking," Merkel said.

But Yerby says limit is the keyword. He says changing your settings won't keep your internet service provider from seeing your virtual footprint.

"You have a choice to make," Yerby said. "Do you want to use this device? Do you want to use this service? If you do, this is the cost. You're giving up information. You're giving up privacy."

For Merkel, the choice is clear. She says she won't be ditching her device.

"It's a lifeline," Merkel said. "I mean, you have to have technology now."


Here are some additional cybersecurity tips from expert Johnathan Yerby:

1. Use strong passwords: Yerby says use strong passwords that include a combination of capitalized and uncapitalized letters, numbers, and symbols. He also says try to use different passwords for your accounts.

2. Use a security program: Yerby says while these programs might not stop the FBI or CIA from spying on you, they will do a good job of keeping the average hacker away.

4. Cover the cameras on your devices: Yerby says it is possible for someone to turn on your cameras remotely and use them to record you. If you're worried about this, he says you can put tape over your cameras.

5. Unplug or turn off your devices: Yerby says if you're that concerned about your security, keep your devices unplugged or turned off.


How to make sure Internet Service Providers don't sell your data

1. Check your provider’s policies

The telecom companies that fought the FCC rules say they wouldn’t do the things banned by them anyway. At the end of January, most major ISPs and their trade associations signed a pledge to let you opt out of having your data used for third-party marketing.

Take them at their word: Visit your provider’s privacy-policy page, as painful as digesting that legalese might be, and opt out of marketing options you don’t like.

AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have each said they won’t sell browsing data to third parties. Since AT&T and Verizon had earlier done just that — the former with an “Internet Preferences” scheme on its gigabit fiber-optic service, the latter with a “supercookie” tracking header added to wireless traffic — one can only hope they’ve learned from those efforts.

2. Prefer encrypted sites

Sites that encrypt the connection between themselves and your browser — most often identified with an “https” prefix to an address or a lock icon in the address bar — stop third parties, including your Internet provider, from monitoring the data going back and forth. Your ISP will only see the domain name you visit… which, if it belongs to a political-advocacy group, can still be revealing.

Some experts will advise employing a virtual private network (VPN) service to scramble all of your traffic, but I don’t recommend that unless you’re on a connection you know to be dicey, like at a random store. Good ones cost extra, and choosing one can be tricky when, as cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs wrote Thursday, many exhibit sketchy business practices of their own.

3. See how sites see you

A common critique of the FCC rules was they did nothing about sites like Facebook and Google tracking you. That’s true.

But unlike ISPs that have collected user data, those two firms and others (for instance, Amazon) let you inspect and edit the advertising profile based on your activity there. Visit facebook.com/ads/preferences and google.com/ads/preferences; you may be surprised by each site’s depiction of you.

4. Spread your business around

Another key difference between a search engine and an ISP: Giving Google a rest is much easier than cutting back on Comcast. Take advantage of that by relying less often on your usual sites. For instance, instead of hitting Google every time, switch among such competitors as the privacy-optimized Duck Duck Go.

Don’t forget the private- or incognito-browsing options offered by all of the major browsers, which leave sites with almost no usable data on you once you close that window. Your Internet provider, however, will still see at least the domain names you visit.

5. Take your business elsewhere — if you can

If your Internet provider does abuse your privacy, fire it and use another — if you can. Unfortunately, many of you can’t.

According to an FCC report posted in November, at the end of 2015, only 24% of Census blocks had two or more providers selling connections with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and uploads of at least 3 Mbps — the FCC’s definition of usable broadband.

Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY