[Val] This is the Be Connected podcast. I'm Val Quinn and I've been a technology editor and broadcaster for over 25 years.So do you feel like your phone or your computer is listening to you from weather apps, mobile games, maybe ordering food, to social media networks? You know, it seems the ability to spy on you is increasing. Well, don't worry, we are here to help you be more confident about your online privacy. And in this episode, our focus is online privacy. So what the internet knows about you, how it tracks you, why it tracks you, and what you can do to limit how much it knows. So how do you protect yourself and make sure your information is secure? Well, helping us navigate this today is the national technology editor for News Corp, Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson. Hi, Jen, welcome to the show. Really happy to have you talking to us today.
[Jennifer] Thank you very much, really happy to be here.
[Val] Yeah. Well, technology is definitely a subject that you know really, really well, 'cause you've been reporting on it for a really long time and I bet privacy is definitely an issue that comes up a lot.
[Jennifer] It certainly does. And it's come up a lot more recently. In more recent years, people have become much more aware of where all of their information is going I think.
[Val] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we are just spending so much more time online and sometimes it really feels like our devices are actually listening to us. You know, we talk about something in our homes and then we start seeing ads for that very product online. You know, for example, I was actually looking to buy some outdoor furniture and I was talking to my wife about it and we were talking about what size and what colour and all of that and where to get it and then I hopped online and I started browsing Facebook and the first thing I saw was an ad for outdoor furniture. And then I went and started browsing other places and I started seeing these ads following me around the internet for outdoor furniture. So are my devices listening to me?
[Jennifer] I think this is a pretty common example. Like I think that there's a lot of people who know someone or who are someone who has had that experience where they just start thinking about something or they start talking about something at a dinner party for example and all of a sudden, all of these ads start popping up for the same thing and it's freaky. It's quite disturbing. However, despite what you may hear around the place, I don't believe that one particular social media network is listening to you all the time, even though it 100% seems like that.
[Val] You know, it's really interesting you say that because I've actually tried this too to test it out because sometimes I swear it is listening to me and then I actually try to talk about a product around my phone and see what happens and then it just doesn't actually do anything. So I have heard that sometimes while we think we may be listened to, we may be giving information to our phones in different ways through emails that we might type or that type of thing. But really though, I mean, do you think our devices can actually listen to us?
[Jennifer] Technically they can listen to us because they have a microphone on them and so if you go through and you have a look at all of the different apps that are potentially using that microphone on your phone, you will probably freak yourself out. However, sometimes it's for genuine reasons and most of the time it's for a genuine reason. But in terms of like picking up on those conversations that you have, those thoughts that you have about things, often it's just down to you're actually not just thinking about it, but you're going in and browsing that. So you're doing web searches for those sorts of things or your friends are doing web searches for those sorts of things or you just happen to fall in the age bracket where people around you are really into outdoor furniture, for example, and those things start popping up. I did hear something once that was really interesting around kind of randomised information. So the shuffle thing on your iPhone, for example, if you tap shuffle, you get a randomised playlist of music, but humans, they don't like random events, they really want them to be structured, they want them to have a form and a reason behind them, and so people try to think of potentially why one song follows another. Our brains try to make order out of that. So potentially our phones are just guessing, but it seems like it's more than that.
[Val] Yeah, that's a really good point. I mean, sometimes we may not trust the device and we think, "Oh, there's some real nefarious meaning behind why something's happening." But if I wanna feel more secure, is there a way I can turn off the things on my phone that listen or record? I mean, how would I do that?
[Jennifer] Absolutely. I think one of the best ways I've found to do this sort of stuff and to check on this sort of stuff as well is to go into the permissions. And so you actually have to go into the scary part of your phone, the settings, and so you can actually see a list of the apps that are using your microphone. And some of them are using them all the time and some of them are just using the microphone when the app is actually open which is a useful thing to know. And you can go through and you can decide to revoke permission if you want to, you can add permission from others that you've denied, and I think that is a really good way to handle it. One thing to pay attention to is that a lot of the assistants, the voice assistants, that are built into all of the different phones, they do listen for you. But again, it's not all of the time.
[Val] Yeah, that's actually a really good point. So I can actually go to a place on my phone in the settings and I can see every app and whether it has permission to use the microphone or camera, right? So that's the idea?
[Val] And then you can just go in there and then individually switch off permissions for those, those particular apps?
[Jennifer] Exactly. And so if there's an app that you're particularly concerned about, whether it's Facebook, whether you like to look at TikTok, but you don't wanna participate for example, you can turn off the microphone for those particular apps. So then you can be quite secure that that's not happening for you. -
[Val] Okay. Okay, well that sounds good and that works on both Apple phones and Android phones and like other brands too? -
[Jennifer] Absolutely it does, yes. They're branded slightly differently, but it's quite easy to switch those off and it's probably worth having a look at all of the permissions that you grant to your apps anyway, because you may have downloaded them a long time ago and just not be thinking about it.
[Val] Ah, good safety tip. I love that. Okay, well I mean obviously when we're browsing around online, I mean there's lots of businesses and companies that we interact with and we might wanna set up say on an online shopping account with your favourite retailer, for example, but I mean, just like how much information am I actually obliged to give a business? -
[Jennifer] As much as you're comfortable with. So I think it's important if you're gonna purchase things from that particular company that you check it out first and make sure it's legitimate. And one way to do that is to make sure that the website address is as simple as possible and that it also has a little lock icon sort of in the corner so that it's got the right security settings, that particular website, but if you're comfortable with making a transaction, then they actually need your details in terms of your payment details and you shouldn't set up a dummy name for example, because they may check that as part of your account. They'll need an address to send stuff to and that's just part of the transaction, but you need to be comfortable that the site that you're visiting is legitimate and is the one that you actually want to visit.
[Val] Right, so I don't have to do it, but I guess in some cases if I wanna transact with that company, then I probably have to give him the information that they need, especially when it comes to credit card details and things like that?
[Jennifer] Exactly. But especially when you're downloading apps. I think some apps ask for a few too many permissions than they actually require sometimes and that's definitely something that you should watch when you're doing that or later go and check on in-app permissions again.
[Val] Yeah, good point. And also watch out for those little tick boxes where you're kind of... Sometimes they're already populated or ticked, pre-ticked, and you can untick them and sometimes you're still able to progress. It just says "I don't wanna be marketed to" or that type of thing.
[Jennifer] Absolutely. And that's gonna save you down the line when you end up with a whole lot of information in your inbox that you don't necessarily need.
[Val] Okay, okay, good one. Well, are there any other ways that I can sort of increase my privacy when I'm online? Any other little tips?
[Jennifer] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's always worth paying attention to where your information is going. One of the ways, if you don't want something to track you around the internet and I'm not talking about, again, nefarious things, but like if, for example, a friend of yours has an allergy and you don't necessarily wanna be served allergy medication all around the web for example. Sometimes I will open an incognito or a private web browser because one of the major ways that people are tracked is by cookies that are traded through web browsers. So all of that information is gathered and potentially used to sell things to you.
[Val] So Jen, what is a cookie?
[Jennifer] So a cookie is not as attractive as it sounds when you're talking about it on the web. Essentially it's a small programme that is used to gather your information from one website to the next and these different websites trade cookies and in the end of it, they have a bit of a profile of what you've looked at, what you've searched, the sorts of products that you've looked up online, and they can potentially use that information to advertise and sell you more stuff.
[Val] Right, so if I go to a website, that website can then drop a cookie into my browser and then just use that to track me?
[Jennifer] They can and there's been talk about whether all of the different companies will move on from using cookies and use some other sort of different scheme, but essentially that's what they're using at the moment. And that's why when you may search for something on one website, it may be advertised to you on the next website you visit.
[Val] Well, can we stop our browsers from being able to receive cookies? Like, can you say no and make this not happen?
[Jennifer] You can absolutely request not to be tracked and certainly Apple devices that have come up with more pop-ups asking companies not to track people across the web, but ultimately the best way to stop them is probably going into private windows and incognito windows within your web browser. Because a lot of times, even if you request those cookies not be able to track you, sometimes they do anyway.
[Val] Okay, so if I'm asked whether I want cookies or to allow companies to track me, I should say no, but otherwise an incognito or private window will keep me safe from cookies.
[Jennifer] That is absolutely the hope. So in the case of allergy medication, then maybe I would open a private or an incognito window, that would block a lot of the different trackers, the ad trackers, that populate the internet. And then I wouldn't necessarily be served that for the next six months while I'm very frustrated at my computer and don't actually have any allergies myself. Another way that is worth checking out too, is a service called DuckDuckGo, which is an alternative search to Google. I used this earlier this year quite a bit and it was fantastic because it actually blocked a lot of those trackers and you can see it in real time, kind of block the different ad trackers that you don't realise are tracking your information across the internet.
[Val] Yeah, DuckDuckGo is amazing. And that's basically just another type of search engine. So instead of going to Google, you go to DuckDuckGo.com, I believe it is. And then from there you just do your searches and it lets you do them privately without learning things about you, which is what Google would do otherwise. And we'll put a link to that in our show notes so you can find that after the episode. And with incognito or private windows, so those you just open up straight in your browser itself, right? You don't need to open up a new browser, just that's an option within your current browser.
[Jennifer] Exactly, and when you open it up, it might look a little bit like the background might be a bit darker for example, just to indicate that you are browsing in incognito or private mode, but essentially it's another way to browse the internet in a more private fashion. So it doesn't necessarily record where you've been. Any information that you download from that will remain accessible to your internet service provider and those sorts of things, but it's a great way to avoid being tracked and being served up those ads if you don't want them to be.
[Val] Great, okay. Well, you know how obviously right now a lot of us are working from home or we're using our web cameras on our computers to talk to family and friends and obviously we can't travel as much as we'd like to at the moment, so what about that? I mean, can someone spy on me through the camera on my computer or on my phone? 'Cause that's always a scary thought, like there's this little eye looking at you. Is it possible?
[Jennifer] It's possible, but it's not probable. So I think something really interesting happened a few years ago when we saw a picture of Mark Zuckerberg's desk at Facebook and he actually had a piece of tap put over the camera on the top of his computer. And I think that spurred a lot of people to wonder if they should be putting tape over the top of their computer. It's highly unlikely that someone is spying through the camera, be it on your computer or your phone. I think Apple has introduced something really nice across all of its devices where it actually has a little LED light beside the camera and even in their phones. And so potentially if the camera on your device is being used, you will see a green light beside it. I'm looking at one right now and that's a really nice indicator of whether your camera is an action. It is possible for someone who has remote access to your computer or your phone to actually be able to use your camera, but in order for that to happen, they do have to have remote access. You have to have installed some sort of software that actually takes over your device and normally you'd be aware of that kind of thing. Or you need to have clicked on the wrong link and got some malware on your device for that to happen. It's not typical and it seems very targeted when that happens and it's definitely not common at all. So in terms of the big tech companies, no they're not gonna be doing that and you don't have to worry about that as part of your regular privacy check, but certainly I've seen people put stickers on there just to be absolutely certain. I don't think that's necessary.
[Val] Yeah, and it doesn't hurt, does it? It doesn't feel bad when you say, "Well, you know, despite everything else, I'm just gonna put this little sticker over my camera when I'm not using it just to be sure." Yep. Do you know the head of the FBI has one on his camera too in the US? There's a photo of him being interviewed and he's got like a piece of tape on his camera as well and I can't remember his name, but he was the head of the FBI at the time. I was like... But look, I get your point. So keep an eye out for that light that illuminates when the camera is in operation to tell you whether it's being used, hopefully by you. And also that, yeah, it is really, really difficult to take over someone's camera remotely, but if you do allow someone to do remote management of your computer, and I know there are some scams going around where you can get tricked into having someone fix your computer and they'll need to instal remote software. So that's the kind of stuff you need to be really careful of and make sure that you're not allowing that or limiting the possibility of remote control of your computer and internet security software, installing that on your computer is a really good defence to that as well. How about the other side of that? What about Siri or Google or these smart assistants like Alexa, they are listening to help us, so can we trust them or are they able to listen to our conversations?
[Jennifer] They can listen to our conversations, but typically what they're doing is they're always listening for a wake word. And so those trigger words around Siri and the Google assistant and I wanna say Alexa, but I think she might be listening. No, she definitely is. They're listening. I've just triggered it. They're listening for those wake words all of the time. And after that, then they will start listening to our conversations in terms of wanting to hear a search query or a question about the weather and those sorts of things. I have had and I've tested a lot of devices and I've had different devices throughout the house in different rooms and every now and again, one of them will go a bit haywire and they'll start hearing things that they shouldn't. I also have a cat called Stewie who sounds a bit like Siri, and he gets picked up on Apple devices a lot of the time, which is quite silly. I think one of the things that's really interesting about this though, is that in all of these places, you can actually go through and you can listen to the recordings of you talking to these devices. You can go through what it's recorded and what it hasn't and that gives you a little bit more of peace of mind about what is actually being recorded by these devices. For me, I went through my Amazon settings for example, and it was just a lot of me sounding really tired turning off alarms. And so if you wanna do that, it's actually kind of funny as well.
[Val] Well look, yeah, it would be fascinating to hear what you actually sound like when these things do pick you up, but it's great to know that so we can log into the cloud and we can access the recordings that it could be Google or Amazon Alexa have and then you can delete them I take it.
[Jennifer] You can delete them individually as well, yes. Sometimes there's been a bit of controversy about those recordings going to the cloud or going to people sort of within those companies to check the responses that were delivered were correct. You can actually turn that off when you set it up as well to make sure that your recordings don't necessarily get reviewed by the companies themselves.
[Val] Right, and also depending on which type of smart speaker you buy, sometimes the speaker itself has a mute button on it, and they usually light up when they're listening, so to speak, so you can use that light indicator also to feel a little more confident about whether you're being listened to, but for anybody that has been listening to this conversation and we've triggered your wake word, we are sorry. It's very easy to do, but we'll try to stop that. So what about online shopping? I mean, that's obviously very massive and lots of us are doing that now, especially because it's harder to get out and get stuff directly. What do you think about that? Is there a way to online shop and protect my information, say PayPal, et cetera?
[Jennifer] Yeah, so there's a few ways that you can do it. So both Google and Apple have their own system set up. Google Pay and Apple Pay, easy enough to work out and they will actually store all of your details and protect them with a password so that if you want to shop online, for example, it populates that very easily in hopefully the correct website, but you mentioned PayPal and that's a really good solution. So I've heard of a lot of different ransomware attacks and hacks of different companies happening with the smaller companies, like florists for example, that have a lot of people's financial information. If you were instead of putting in your credit card details with a florist, for example, putting your PayPal details, PayPal provides an extra level of protection because yes, they stole your credit card and your bank account details, but they also protect them and they're pretty darn good at security I've gotta say. So in that case, even if a small business that you have dealings with gets compromised, your information is still protected.
[Val] Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a great tip. And what can I do if I think I have given my information to the wrong people online?
[Jennifer] Yeah. so that can be quite scary. If you think that your information has gotten out there and if you have bank transactions that you don't recognise, definitely report that to your bank in the first instance. If you have actually suffered a loss, then that's something that you need to be reporting to the police and based on my experience, you should potentially go to your local police station and report that in person so they take that really seriously. There's a few places online to report scams and those sorts of things, but in terms of your private information getting out there, especially in a way where it could potentially compromise your identity, there is a company called IDCARE and they are amazing and so skilled at this sort of thing. They have case managers there that can kind of take you through how to close off accounts, how to change your information 'cause there's some things that you really need to protect around not just your credit card information, but potentially your identity. So if you've handed over details of your driver's licence, for example, and they can definitely take you through the process. They're really fantastic.
[Val] Okay, so IDcare if your identity has been stolen and scamwatch.gov.au is a great source just for keeping track of the scams that are out there so you can informed and great. And we'll put a link to that in our show notes.
[Jennifer] Yeah, I'd also recommend if you do find that you've been scammed, reporting it to Report Cyber at the Australian Cybersecurity Centre because they do a lot of good work in this regard in terms of law enforcement as well. And it's really important, I get really annoyed when these scams are allowed to just continue. I've been looking into puppy scams recently and it's just not fair.
[Val] Well Jen, what is a puppy scam?
[Jennifer] So a puppy scam is essentially, just like it sounds, where scammers essentially pretend to sell you a puppy and so they have these lovely photos of dogs up online, and then people transfer the money and really fall in love with these dogs on the internet and then don't receive them at the end of the day. It's just another way of baiting and switching, but kind of really cruel.
[Val] Oh my goodness. Yeah, puppy scams, that does not sound good at all. Despite some of the things we've talked about, I mean, the internet, it can be a completely safe and wonderful place and you make sure you're informed on what types of things you can do to protect yourself and I think Jen has offered some fantastic advice. Thank you so much, Jen.
[Jennifer] I love talking about this stuff and thanks so much for having me.
[Val] Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Be Connected podcast and thanks to Jen Dudley-Nicholson for sharing her insights. So if you liked what you heard, please subscribe to receive all the latest episodes. And if you have questions, be sure to check out the show notes for the websites mentioned in the episode and you can follow the links to the free Be Connected courses for more information about today's topics. To learn more about internet security or antivirus software, including examples about how to instal it, visit the Be Connected antivirus course. There's a link to that in the show notes too. And lastly, to discover other great topics, go to beconnected.esafety.gov.au. That's beconnected.esafety.gov.au. I'm Val Quinn and I look forward to your company next time.
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