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Enjoy this free article courtesy of Choices, the health, social-emotional learning, and life-skills magazine for grades 7–12 

Is Your Computer Spying on You?

To answer this and other creepy questions about online privacy, two Choices interns went on the hunt to uncover the truth. What they dug up might surprise you. 

We’re used to having access to technology in almost every aspect of our lives. Our phones help us figure out directions, watch a whole season of a TV show in a day, and even split the bill on an order of french fries. One day we came to a shocking realization: We blindly accept terms and conditions and allow cookies on every single site. Are we too much in the dark about digital safety and privacy? Short answer: Yes. But by actually reading the fine print of our favorite apps’ policies and talking to experts, we found out we don’t need to ditch our devices . . . but we could probably be a bit more careful. Here, we’re sharing answers to the questions that have been bugging us forever. Use them to keep your own digital life on lockdown. 

Everyone has a friend who covers their laptop cam with tape, right? At first, this struck us as paranoid—until we heard that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, covers his. Should we too be scared that strangers are spying on us?

What we uncovered: We learned that our webcams are vulnerable. Typically, a stranger gains access by sending a spam email. When you click the link, it installs something called malware (software designed to disrupt, damage, or hack into your computer). This allows that person to watch you through your camera. How likely is that to happen? It’s impossible to know exactly, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. We were pretty creeped out when we read about a case a few years back where a hacker took photos of a former Miss Teen USA through her webcam—and threatened to release them if she didn’t pay up.

How to lock it down: Experts suggest you make sure your computer’s operating system and antivirus software are up-to-date, close your laptop when you’re not using it, and avoid clicking email links you aren’t positive are secure. Since doing this research, we’ve decided to invest in cute stickers for our laptop cameras just to be safe! 

We love Snapchat, but one development that definitely snuck up on us was the Snap Map. After accidentally enabling it one day, we took a look: Not only could you tell we were at home, but you could tell which part of the house we were in. Creepy.

What we uncovered: If you’re not a robot, a lawyer, or someone with unlimited time on your hands, the website’s 8,000-word-long terms and conditions page can be incredibly daunting. But chin up: You can skim it in just a few minutes. By doing so, we learned that anyone in our network, plus Snapchat advertisers, can locate us through Snap Map. Why is that so unnerving? Any random person you added by mistake (or because you met them once) can cyberstalk you. Plus, it’s not exactly great for your mental health if you see your friends hanging out without you.

How to lock it down: Luckily, “Saying yes to a platform doesn’t mean saying yes to every single one of its capabilities,” Janell Burley Hofmann, an online safety expert, reminds us. “If you can opt in, you can opt out.” Maybe don’t keep geolocation on when you’re not using the map. Or if you want Snap Map totally off, just toggle the location access button in the app’s settings from While using the app to Never. (Bonus: By shutting off geolocation on this and other apps, you won’t zap your battery nearly as fast.) 

Have you ever been talking about something—maybe complimenting your friend on her new backpack—and a few minutes later Instagram shows you an ad for exactly that? We have. And we can’t shake the icky feeling that someone is listening to our casual conversations and using that info to advertise to us.

What we uncovered: It’s not just us. Last year, a group of computer scientists at Northeastern University heard so many people talking about this conspiracy theory that they decided to investigate it themselves. Their study found no evidence that any of the 17,000 apps they tested (including Instagram) were using the phone’s mic to capture audio, but that doesn’t mean you can totally relax around your devices. Remember: All your favorite artificial intelligence (AI) helpers— Google Home, Amazon Echo, Siri, and Alexa—are built to be able to respond to you once you use the trigger phrase, like Hey, Siri or Alexa. Most of these interactions are recorded, although the robots’ makers claim they don’t sell this data to advertisers.

How to lock it down: Even if your conversations aren’t being sent to advertisers, privacy concerns are still valid. Maybe we’re turning into a broken record, but once again, the first key is in your settings. This time, if you’re using an AI helper, check its activity page and make sure it isn’t recording anything you don’t want recorded. Disable access to your mic on any apps that don’t need it. And if you have the voice helper enabled on your phone, you can turn it off and settle for scrolling manually—even if you’re a little bit slower than Siri. 

Like what you see? Then you'll love Choices, our health, social-emotional learning, and life-skills magazine for grades 7–12 

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