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What You Need to Know about Cyber-Surveillance

What You Need to Know About Cyber-Surveillance

No, microwave ovens can’t spy on people. And people who knew that cooked up a social media feast from Kellyanne Conway’s famously misspoken words about cyber-surveillance. Facebook and Twitter filled up with memes of tiny Obamas who lurk inside kitchen appliances with a camera.

Other posts showed secret agents who crawl out of toasters, and fake ads where James Bond sponsored juicers. Ms. Conway may have sounded ridiculous.

Nevertheless her comment brought up two important issues. First: the National Security agency spies on American citizens. We’ve know this since Edward Snowden and the Wikileaks revelations in June 2013,

Second: many of our electronic devices are indeed able to listen to us and watch what we do.

Here’s some information that may help answer your questions about both these realities.

Is my country spying on me?

People have said I’m too optimistic about this, but I believe that for most people the answer clearly “no”. This is despite Wikileak’s recent data dump that implies the CIA can unlock smartphones and TVs.

The difference here lies between “having the ability” and actually doing so.

We need to keep in mind that the CIA is a spy agency. They exist to spy on foreign powers that might endanger our national security.

It’s also important to note that the intelligence community has been on high alert since 9/11. Now they have turned their attention to possible “bad actors” within in the US itself.

Recent acts of terrorism both here and abroad have been “homegrown.” The terrorist who mowed down people in Nice in 2017 was a French citizen. In London, the person who recently wreaked havoc was a British citizen. The terrorists in San Bernardino and Orlando were American citizens.

The American Civil Liberties makes it clear to spy on American citizens without warrants or judicial oversight is illegal. Despite this, there is probably lots of “listening in” by these agencies on people and groups they suspect of “radicalization” to carry out attacks.

Most of this spy activity is carried out with warrants. Others, though, may get caught up in the intelligence agencies’ nets. Once an intelligence agency pinpoints someone to spy on, they gather information on perhaps “illegal” activity. Also, the track basically all electronic information tied to that person as well.

The Russian Connection

How this works has become clearer since President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, resigned after his dealings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak came to light.

Just like in the movies and on TV, foreign diplomats are often also spies. Kislyak was monitored, and he’d had communication with Mike Flynn.

It isn’t necessarily true that the CIA targeted Flynn in particular. (We won’t know that for a while.) But his business with Kislyak became part of the CIA record; the record was leaked, and Flynn was discovered to have lied about his contacts with Kislyak.

The cloak-and-daggers accusations by Donald Trump about Obama “wiretapping” Trump Tower, and Representative Devin Nunes’s claim that “the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition” simply point to the manner in which intelligence information is collected.

Still, unless you speak or meet with people whom the intelligence community considers dangerous, it’s unlikely that your data lands in their files. Of course, “dangerous” is a relative term here. But I would wager that the overwhelming majority of women who read Midlife Boulevard don’t need to worry their phones are tapped or their smart TVs record their conversations.

Can My Electronics Spy on Me?

Unfortunately, the answer here is yes. It certainly can happen. Smart phones, televisions, Alexa, Google Voice and even certain children’s toys are set up to record what you say and then send that data back to a central location via the internet.

Samsung’s privacy policy, for example, clearly states that its smart TV can “capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features.”

To assuage consumers’ outrage and fears when the Daily Beast first wrote about this undesirable feature in early February, 2017, Samsung immediately assured people that the data is encrypted and used only to  interpret commands owner direct to their TVs.

Still . . . .

Another potential spying device is the webcam on our laptops and desktops. Photos have revealed that Mark Zuckerberg covers his. Even FBI Director James Comey went on record to warn people to cover their webcams with a piece of tape.

Cheap software enables hackers to control webcams and repeatedly snap pictures or simply record events at the other end.

Generally the software takes control of the webcam when the computer user clicks on a link in an email message. Miss Teen USA 2013, Cassidy Wolf, had fallen victim to a hacker in 2012. The man, who took pictures of her and then tried to extort money, eventually was sentenced to 18 months in the slammer.

Can I Protect Myself?

For the most part, yes. Make sure all the apps and programs on ALL your electronic devices are up-to-date. Also enable lockscreens and set passwords. For a smart TV, the situation is more complicated. This is because the hacking software masks the button that alerts you the record function is on.

Ironically, since Samsung was the manufacturer called out by Wikileaks, it’s not complicated to turn off the Samsung voice recognition commands when you don’t them. Meanwhile smart TV manufacturers Phillips and LG currently don’t give you a clue what to do.

You should also figure out how to update the “firmware” for your wireless router, not always an easy task. Put tape over the camera on your laptop and desktop.

And, finally, never, ever, ever, ever click on a link in an email if you don’t know where it will take you. This is true even if the email apparently comes from a friend. The same holds true for links on social media.

It’s a New Privacy Age

For most everyone I know, the idea that our own government spies on us as we go about our daily lives is abhorrent. I certainly hope that my faith in checks and balances that protect citizens holds true.

That our electronic devices are hacked and used to spy on us isn’t surprising when you think about how digital technology works. Frankly, I am more worried about people like the guy who took photos of Cassidy Wolf than I do about the CIA. So I try to take care with my security.

I keep a sticky note (instead of a piece of tape) over my laptop and desktop cameras. This is the method I rely on because I video chat with family all the time. I need the fast on/fast off approach. Also, I try to remember to turn off Siri on my phone if I’m not using “her.”

Of course I forget. And that’s why my phone interrupted me the other day when, while teaching, I began a sentence with the word “seriously.” Stupid Siri thought I was talking to her.

Linda Bernstein

Linda Bernstein is a professor, writer, social media consultant, and proud Baby Boomer. She has written hundreds of articles for dozens of national and international newspapers, magazines, and websites. Instagram: wordwhacker

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