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Posted by Stuart Jansen on January 20, 2018

Smart technology is connecting our lives in incredible ways! We now wear smart glasses that connect to our watches, that connect to our phones, that connect to our thermostats, cars, bikes and more. Our lives are being tracked from where we are, to how our health is, and who we know. Advertisers are able to target consumers based on where they are at a specific time, what movies they watch, what stores they are in, their web search history and much more. With all this personal data freely flowing between technologies we have seen extraordinary strides in lifestyle electronics, that is making everyone's life more convenient. However, these luxuries are not without their dangers; we need to find a balance between convenience and T.M.I., by understanding how to track and protect our information online.

Smart Communities

A man on a tablet which connects to his home

The increase in smart household devices has given rise to the smart community concept which is being offered by several companies including Google. Google has already developed smart communities in 9 U.S. cities, with another 9 in the works. Smart communities are being provided Google's super-fast, 1000 Mbps, Google Fiber internet for an extremely low price. Homes in these communities are provided with HD Smart T.V.s, Android Boxes, 1 Terabyte of Google cloud, and indirectly, homeowners in these neighbourhoods will likely purchase Google phones and tablets in order to integrate their lives.

Programs like these have a lot of benefits for the environment, education and medicare, but this article is focussing on the implication to your data. Google already tracks your information through the web and phones, and soon they will be able to use your car, T.V., and other household appliances. Apple may not have smart communities yet, but they also have plenty in the way of integrated Smart household electronics. This will lead to even more targeted ads, more relevant web content, and new technologies that utilizes this very rich database.

But how much is our data worth?
The movie poster for The Interview

Data collection and analysis is an incredible thing when in the right hands and put to the right uses. However, over the past year or so we have seen first hand the major repercussions of data breaches.

In August 2014, Apple's iCloud was breached and over 500 private photos of celebrities - mostly females - were released to the public. Hackers accessed the accounts by phishing for passwords or by targeting specific usernames and using password guessing algorithms.

In November 2014, prior to the release of the controversial movie "The Interview", Sony Pictures Entertainment had their data hacked by cyber-terrorists who threatened to release confidential and damaging information if the movie was released. Though the media focussed on leaked emails, internal politics, celebrity gossip and scripts of unreleased movies, much more data was obtained. Hackers also gained access to employees names, addresses, Social Insurance Numbers, and some medical records.

In July 2015 Ashley Madison, the infamous adulterous dating site, was hacked by 'hacktivists' demanding the site to be shut down or else they would release the names and addresses of all site users.

All 3 cases prove that our data can be accessed if someone is determined enough. However, the goal of this blog is not to monger fear or create conspiracy theories, it is to make us put more thought to what is happening to our data. When was the last time you read a Terms of Use Agreement? How often do you allow apps to track your data or location? We often take for granted how much of our data is being tracked, and many of us don't even realize that there are ways to protect our data without reducing our experience of apps or the internet.

How to keep your data safe

The cloud storage icon with a safe on it
On Your Phone:

You can increase your phone's battery life and protect your data by turning off your "location services" and, if possible, your "feedback". Location services are great when you are using a GPS, but when you aren't it is simply draining your battery while letting your phone provider know where you are at all times. Some phones allow you to turn off your "feedback" settings which frequently sends your phone data to your phone manufacturer. This is another service that drains your battery, however, some brands do not allow you to turn it off because they consider your data their property.

Thirdly, carefully consider what information apps are asking to access before downloading them. Don't simply click "agree" without thinking. Always question whether the app should require that information, whether you trust the app provider with that information, and whether you think your information is secure with them.

On The Web:

There are many ways that you can protect your data on the web, the most obvious is to go into your account settings for any site where you have a profile (social media, email etc.) and ensure that the privacy settings are at your comfort level.

You may not know that your internet browser also has settings; if you go into your browser preferences you can manage how your browser caches your information, whether it saves your passwords and data, and how it tracks your web navigation. Once again make sure that you are comfortable with the information your browser is collecting and who it is sending your information to. For example, Google Chrome has an option where your browser "automatically sends usage statistics and crash reports to Google".

If you want to search the web without your information or cookies being cached or tracked by any websites, open your browser in private mode (Incognito Mode on Chrome, New Private Window on Safari, InPrivate on Explorer). This is a great tool, as specially if you are booking a vacation - often, flight prices will be inflated if the website knows you are searching for a destination.

Another way to protect your data is to adjust your advertising setting. Most people don't realize that you can adjust the settings of how sites target you for advertising. The less you allow them to target you, the less data they will track. Twitter is quite transparent and shows you your targeting settings as part of your "account privacy" settings, but sites like Google and Facebook aren't as easy to find; these links will show you how to adjust your settings.

Google: https://support.google.com/ads/answer/2662922?hl=en

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/business/help/155389304528852

Apple Products: https://support.apple.com/en-ca/HT202074

How to check and download your data

A thumb print on binary code

Want to see what Google and Apple knows about you? It's not difficult to find out. Below are some tools that are provided that will open your eyes to how well they know you:

If you have Gmail on your phone, Google Maps Timeline will allow you to see where you went and when- day by day as far back as 2009. Where were you on this day in 2012?

Apple products also can tell you where you've been, when, and for how long.

Check out your Google ad settings and find out who Google thinks you are- age, gender and interests. This can get creepily accurate. 

Think your browser is the only thing that tracks your search history? Think again! Google stores and tracks your search history and click log to track which sites you visit and which ads you have clicked on. 

Want to know how many Apps have permission to access your Gmail account information? This will make you think twice before checking off "I Agree".

How-To-Geek has written a great article on changing permission settings on Apple products.

Google even tracks which specific devices you have been on!

Have anything to add to this article, or any questions about this topic? Let us know! We wish you safe searching!