5 Terrifying Ways Your Own Gadgets Can Be Used to Spy On You
Thanks to the Bush administration and one Will Smith movie, we all have a fairly justifiable fear of government surveillance. But it turns out you should be just as paranoid about your boss, your overly affectionate uncle and that stuttering blinky guy who lingers by your garbage cans on trash days. Because thanks to modern technology, the details of your life are openly accessible to pretty much anybody who wants them.
Tracking Your Movements
Imagine it's Saturday night and you're doing your usual Saturday night thing, when your webcam secretly clicks on. And somewhere, somebody starts watching you while you wipe Dorito dusted fingers on your whitey tighties and bob your head to Nickelback. They could be secretly uploading videos of you on to YouTube, taking notes for anthropological purposes or, if you're lucky, masturbating.
And you'd never even know they're there.
By now you've almost certainly heard about that high school in Pennsylvania that got in trouble for issuing its students laptops, and then spying on them in their bedrooms, remotely, by controlling their webcams.
We're going to bet that, before that story broke, you didn't know there was even such a thing as turning on somebody else's webcam against their will from across town. And maybe you thought the school had done some weird modification to the laptops, and that it was just an isolated incident by a somewhat insane school district.
Class outside? What the fuck is going on here?
The truth is, it took basically no effort on their part. All sorts of programs are available to let you remotely commandeer a webcam, and many of them are free. Simple versions will just take photos or videos when they detect movement, but more complex software will send you an e-mail when the computer you've installed the program on is in use, so you can immediately login and control the webcam without the hassle of having to stare at an empty room until the person you're stalking shows up. Convenient!
Leaving creeps free time to work on their Harry Potter/Starfox slash fiction.
One of the creepier uses of this technology came back in 2008, when a University of Florida student, who was known for helpfully fixing the computer problems of strangers, not so helpfully installed programs onto some of the computers he repaired so he could use the webcam to capture nude pictures of the girls who owned them.
This is a sad example of what would be hilarious in a wacky college movie being disturbing in real life, and we also have to wonder how someone that proficient with computers was unaware you could find plenty of naked women on the Internet in roughly three seconds.
Tracking Your Movements
Let's say that like most Cracked readers during this recession, you're a custodian. And your boss gives you a cool cell phone with a clippy thing that you attach to your waist while you're working, which you assume is so he can phone you when there's some macaroni vomit you've got to take care of. What you wouldn't assume is that he's using that cool cell phone to track and log your every custodiony movement.
9:35 a.m. - Retreated into "janitor's lounge."
For some companies, it's not enough to know what sleazy shit you're totally into on the Internet. What they really want to know is what sleazy shit you're into at the workplace. For these guys, the logical next step in employee surveillance is using GPS technology to track your every move while you're on the job.
Japanese company KDDI has developed technology for cell phones that uses something called accelerometers to track precise movements, then beams all that info back to a central location. And we're not throwing the word "precise" around willy-nilly here. These guys can tell if whoever wearing the phone is sweeping versus scrubbing, walking versus running, doing number two in the bathroom versus doing number two in the secretary's filing cabinet. It's that sophisticated.
And anyone with access to your phone can secretly upload the software. Your mom. Your girlfriend. A grudge-holding, time-traveling Alexander Graham Bell... anyone.
For those of you who think that this would never be used in America, it sort of already is, just in a simpler form. Called geofencing, it's used by businesses whose employees are constantly on the move, like FedEx drivers. A GPS enabled cell phone with some software installed on it lets bosses know where their drivers are at all times, and they'll get e-mail alerts if their employees are speeding, loitering or entering "prohibited areas," like a bar, or cockfighting arenas, or their home, or whatever they feel like labeling as prohibited.
"Get back to work. Those pizzas aren't going to deliver themselves."
But, hey, it's not like they're listening in on your calls or anything...
Listening to Your Phone Calls
If you told us 20 years ago that there would be places where cell phones would be more ubiquitous than toilets, we would have shat our Girbauds and done a spit-take into your mirrored Oakleys. But here we are, in 2010, with just about every schmo carting a cell phone around like it's no big thing. Hey! You know what else is "no big thing"? Using that same ubiquitous device to to listen to your conversations, read your text messages and monitor your online browsing.
Companies like Mobile Spy are on the cutting edge of the turning cell phones into secret, psycho nanny devices business. For just about $100, customers can get software that records the phone number and length of every outgoing and incoming call, all text messages sent and received, and the phone's Internet browsing history. All of that info then gets sent to a database run by the good people behind Mobile Spy, and can be perused by users at their leisure.
"Don't worry, everybody. She said she'd be right back."
Fancier programs also let you listen in on and record live phone conversations.
Now, this doesn't mean you should get all paranoid and start sending all your text messages in Esperanto, but the fact that so many different kinds of software for spying on cell phones exist suggests that there's a pretty serious market for this sort of thing.
On the plus side, none of these programs can be used unless the perpetrator has access to your phone. On the down side, anyone who does have access to your phone can monitor you like you're a dissatisfied Soviet dissident and they're the KGB.
But no untrustworthy person will ever be alone with your phone, right?
Using the Internet to Find Your Personal Info
You probably think you're pretty clever about what sort of personal information you reveal on the Internet. Sure, we all have a drunken electric slide pic out there, but it's not like the average person is handing out their address and phone number to everyone they meet in some shady chatroom. So your personal life is pretty secure, right?
Pictured: total safety.
Totally. Unless somebody knows your name or has a vague idea of where you live. Because with just those little tidbits, anyone can track down your precise address, phone number, and just about all the other information that you don't exactly advertise to the universe.
And there's more than one way to do it, too. For starters, there's a site that lets you browse around a map of your community to see if anyone near you has a criminal record. The website is kind of creepy and seems to promote vigilante justice, plus they freely admit that their data isn't always accurate, so maybe that 80-year-old man with the oxygen tank who lives next door isn't really a serial rapist after all.
And if the guy doing the searching isn't a total cheapskate, there are plenty of websites out there that are willing to give out all sorts of personal info for the right price. You can get someone's address and phone number with just a couple of bucks, but if you want to get fancy you can also get their previous addresses, aliases, tax and legal history, property values, marriage and divorce records, and info on their neighbours and family members, all for around $40.
Apparently you can put a price on human life. And that price is less than a new Xbox game.
All these sites are doing is pulling together a bunch of info taken from various public records databases, but the end result is a report on your life history for anyone who cares to pay for it. Suddenly that guy who's stalking you on Facebook looks pretty harmless.
Tracking Every Keystroke You Make
By this point in the game, you're a straight up idiot if you don't realize your boss can and will spy on you at work. You probably gave him the right to do it when you got the job, one of those forms in between the Dress Code and the Sexual Harassment Policy.
And the fact that you're probably reading this at work after sorting through a bunch of chain e-mails from your co-workers would suggest that most people are OK with this. After all, giving employees Internet access without monitoring them is basically giving them permission to spend the entire workday looking at penis trees.
Thousands of office workers just looked at a tree's dick. Welcome to the Internet.
What you probably didn't realize was that for just about $50 anyone else with a few minutes of access to your computer can monitor you just as thoroughly.
At this very second, companies like Thinkertec are making programs like SpyPal. In their words, "Invisible computer & Internet activity monitoring software!"
Thinkertec warns parents of the dangers of their children using MySpace or Xanga (which are both apparently still things) and suggesting that it's perfectly OK to thus invade your family member's privacy because you're only doing it to stop online predators. To be fair, it's probably pretty effective: nothing teaches a child to be suspicious better than spying on every little thing they do.
"Listen, my boy. Never trust The Man."
But parents aren't the only ones utilizing this stuff. For only about fifty clams, employers/spouses/super clingy computer repairmen can install this program and in return it will give up your passwords, chat conversations, screenshots with playback, weird search terms that you plug in on a whim at 3 am, everything.
Plus the software will squeal on any programs executed, clipboard activity or keystrokes typed. So, everything you ever do on a computer, ever. And all of that information will get reported to the customer at their whim... with hourly updates, if they want. For less money than a video game.
But say you do all your web surfing at home, and you live alone. Nobody's going to spy on you there, right? Well, unless your Internet service provider starts looking through your browsing history without your knowledge. And then sells your data to advertisers.
"Wow, a pop-up for a coffee cup/newspaper/stripey sweater emporium. What are the odds?"
Did you know that pretty much every Internet provider saves their customers' browsing histories? To be fair there are legitimate uses for the practice, like helping the police track down child pornography rings, or letting the RIAA sue the shit out of some guy who downloaded 3 songs several years ago. Or, you could have a situation like they had in Britain in 2006, where the country's three biggest ISPs were going to sell their customers' browsing habits to a company called Phorm to created targeted ads. Phorm, incidentally, got their start by making millions from spyware .
You can read more from Mark at Gunaxin.
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