Rich Warren | Technology users can avoid common pitfalls

Rich Warren | Technology users can avoid common pitfalls

When swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii, an undertow grabbed me and pulled me toward Maui. Had it not been for a kindly surfer, I might not be writing this column today. Aspects of contemporary technology remind me of that undertow.

It seems that between Amazon and Google, along with other players, privacy becomes as endangered as a lone swimmer in a riptide.

Recently, a few alert passengers discovered miniature hidden cameras in the seatbacks of certain airlines. The airlines claimed the cameras were inactive. Just like they claim your flight will really land at O'Hare in a snowstorm.

Similarly, observant users uncovered undocumented microphones in certain Google home products. Both the airlines and Google announced the cameras and microphones were there for future "enhanced" features.

It seems every product now includes Amazon Alexa. This voice assistant, with a degree of artificial intelligence, responds to your every command and sometimes things you don't command. If you own a phone with Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri, be careful that you don't unintentionally arouse them from their slumbers.

On more than one occasion, I discovered the Google Assistant on my Android phone waiting for or executing an unintended command, and my partner has experienced the same with Siri on her iPhone.

They are supposed to only respond to specific wake commands, but if something sounds reasonably close, beware.

Also, some Android phones include dedicated buttons or touch areas that awake Google Assistant. Security experts already documented situations where Alexa and Google Assistant eavesdropped. Don't be surprised when that jumbo carton of paper towels arrives on your doorstep unbidden.

Just don't plan to run for president with any of these services enabled. As my friend Thom always says: "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

Apps fill another area where privacy and security matter. Apps are snippets of computer code that provide often useful and desirable functions, greatly enhancing the utility of your phone or tablet. A smartphone lacking a few good apps is a waste.

Because most apps are advertising supported (which makes them sort of free), people download them willy-nilly to their phones. You probably have at least a dozen apps you rarely, if ever, use. Yet beyond being advertising supported, many, if not most, apps keep track of you in some way and collect information about you, which they then sell.

Depending on the settings you choose for your phone/tablet and the app's own settings, that seemingly innocuous app you downloaded may be relaying back your entire contact list, your photos, emails and the phone numbers you call.

Before downloading an app, vet it. Read all the user reviews (although these can be planted false reviews). If possible, research it on the web. Decide if you really want to play that game or really need the service or information that app promises.

When you proceed to download, restrict its permissions strictly to those necessary for the app to function. It may want your contacts or camera, but it doesn't need those to function. After using the app for a week or two (or not using it as the case may be) decide if you really need to keep it.

Apps take up memory space in your phone, and depending on their settings and permissions, drain the battery.

One major warning: never, ever download an app not offered through the Apple App Store or the Google Play store. Some apps, mostly games, are available outside these channels and often come infected with viruses or malware that snoops on your activities. No game is worth that risk.

Although both Apple and Google make an effort to inspect all the apps offered by their respective stores, occasionally one with malware slips through. To avoid this, wait a month, or two, after a new app appears before downloading to ensure that it is clean.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Topics (2):Internet, Technology
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