Life,  Security

Are We Being Watched?

I was born in an age where many people could not afford a telephone. An age where the Middle Class splurged for a Party Line (a single phone line shared between multiple households). One was considered wealthy if they could afford a phone at all, and only the “truly rich” could afford a private line or a long-distance phone call.

Such was the era that I grew up in that I didn’t even realize that computers were real until I started middle school. The only time I ever saw them was on television, so I dismissed them as fantasy.

Perhaps this is why I continue to be so fascinated by the machines today. I am astounded by the fact that a device as small as the palm of my hand can be used to connect with what seems to be a limitless amount of knowledge and information. I doubt that this is something that I will ever take for granted.

I have watched computers grow from keyboard-shaped devices that you connected to a television to becoming devices that are part of the television. They are even an integral part of automobiles, microwaves, air conditioners, thermostats, and innumerable other devices scattered around the average home. More and more of these computing devices have now gained the ability to connect to the Internet. They have even coined a new term for the phenomena, the “Internet of Things (IoT).”

While I am amazed at how far computers have come, I wonder about the long-term repercussions of having an entire home filled with devices that can “phone home” for updates and transmit “usage statistics.” Have we finally entered the age prophesied by George Orwell in his famous book 1984 or am I so old that I am just becoming paranoid?

My questioning began after my daughter and I discussed some items we would like to buy. Shortly after we had that conversation, I went online to do something and noticed that the ads were eerily related to that conversation.

I had never, not once, ever searched for the items in question.

How could a random website on the internet–multiple websites, actually (since the ads were repeated in various places) know that my daughter and I had been discussing this topic, a topic that had never occurred to me to be interested in prior to my daughter mentioning it to me?

No one else was in the room. My computer has neither microphone nor camera installed. The television is an older hand-me-down from my daughter, so it’s incapable of connecting to the Internet. My iPad was on the table as we had that discussion, however. And my iPad uses WiFi to connect to the Internet.

My daughter and I conducted an experiment after that event. She had noticed the same thing happening to her when she talked about things around her smartphone and was curious as well. We turned up some music, placed our gadgets by the speaker, and huddled in the bathroom to formulate our plan.

Sure enough, the topic we chose to discuss appeared in ads on both of our devices in the days after that. My daughter was so astounded that she began discussing the suspected eavesdropping in front of the devices in question.

After that, the ads stopped.

Was something or someone listening in to our conversations? Did they realize that we were suspicious of them after my kid mentioned the fact, or was it all a big coincidence that advertising related to our private conversations stopped appearing when the kid talked about it in front of the devices?

I don’t know, but it has made me more than concerned.

It is common knowledge that Google earns money through advertising. Microsoft began to follow that trend by forcing users to watch ads if they wanted to play their games without a subscription. Even Ubuntu Linux offered Amazon advertising based upon your searches in the Unity Dash for a time. In an era of devices set up to respond on “Hey Siri,” “OK Google,” and “Alexa, order this for me,” is it a stretch of the imagination to wonder if these devices are listening in more than they claim?

When you add the NSA to the picture things become even darker. Edward Snowden fled to Russia after he revealed that our government was collecting frightening amounts of information. Microsoft and other major companies actively aided the US government through a thing called Prism. While Apple was one of the holdouts when Steve Jobs was still alive, they now admit to the fact that they analyze the photos you upload to the Cloud. They claim that it is to help stop child abuse. In light of my recent experience with their devices, I am beginning to wonder if images are all they are scanning.

Businesses exist for the sole purpose of making money. They make this money by encouraging us to buy the things they want to sell. To encourage us to buy, they promote their products and services through advertising.

What would stop Microsoft from profiting from this? What would stop any company from profiting from this? Who would know if Microsoft sold our private information to advertisers? We can’t exactly go through the source code of Windows to find out if they’re harvesting it. What would stop Apple from doing the same now that Steve Jobs is gone? We already know that Google and Amazon do this with their devices. That is what they were designed for, after all. Watch the ads they display of people using their devices to order stuff online and that fact becomes obvious.

And what if all of this goes deeper than simple marketing? Is there a chance that the police will show up at our doors if one of our devices overhears us discussing something considered illegal? A woman has already been investigated by police after she searched for a pressure cooker online. Is that going to become our reality?

Should we be worried, even if we feel that we have nothing to hide? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Edit:

Another question occurred to me after I published this post. If the government is collecting information on us, could it be that they are secretly repaying their information sources in the form of tax breaks? Inquiring minds would like to know.


It is hypocritical to run a website about buying and living on less while begging your readers to buy your crap so I refuse to do it. That said, I live on the money I receive from book sales, so if you can find it in your heart to pitch in I would be immensely grateful.

I’ve written a lot of books sharing my odd view of life in hopes of helping others. My most notorious book is titled The Shoestring Girl: How I Live on Practically Nothing and You Can Too, but The Minimalist Cleaning Method is pretty popular as well. You can find them at the following places:

Amazon
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Thank you for your support!

10 Comments

  • John Grebe

    I can tell you that Amazon is clearly selling its data on what you buy and search on its site to Facebook for targeted adds. Of course a lot of what I buy on Amazon is the result of helping out my grandmother with her online shopping using my computer. This apparently confused Amazon which has “big data” thinking I am probably gay, as I now routinely get adds for special shops like on that sells women’s shoes in larger men’s sizes. Still regardless of how much money they use to throw ads at me there is zero chance that I will be buying, let alone start wearing high heels.

    Next level of the test would be to talk about different things but with only the iPad or your daughter’s smartphone present but not both to see if you can find out if it is one of the devices or both of them. It would be of even more interest depending upon if your daughter’s phone is Android or iOS to find out if it is one or both of them that are the bug in the room.

    • Annie

      Bwahahaha! Oh my goodness, you must be giving the ad servers a fit! Someone is wondering why you don’t buy that stuff, I’m betting!

      I suspect I was flagged after the kid started discussing the incident in front of our devices so I will wait a bit before I attempt any further experimentation. I’d noticed how ads seemed to pop up on Facebook after I’d mentioned something to the kid for a while now, but I thought I was being paranoid until that one time when the kid started talking to me about buying a thing and the moment I went back online, ads not only appeared on my Facebook, but on several other sites as I surfed the Internet. I actually kinda went to several…unorthodox sites to test it when it happened, just to throw the stats off. When I fired up Tor and browsed, none of the ads appeared but of course, you make sure you don’t disclose your identity or login to websites while using Tor. And after the kid mentioned it within shot of the devices, the ad coincidences I’d been noticing just stopped dead. I still get ads based upon things I search for, but I don’t receive them about the things I talk about. I’ve tested it to see since then.

      I love gadgets. Everyone who knows me is well aware of my love of computers and gadgets. And I thought I was a bit on the paranoid side with my personal practices, to be honest. Figured it was better to be safe than sorry. That incident with the ads makes me wonder if things aren’t worse than I thought.

  • sheila

    I got a disturbing email from Google this past week. it tracked where I had been somehow. I don’t use my phone for a GPS just for that reason, I might also be a tad paranoid, having grown up in the same time frame you did and having to read “1984” in high school…  That kind of freaked me out, how did it know where I had been, what places I had visited? Where I had shopped and what Dr I went to? 

    I worked at IBM back in the very early 1990s when the computers filled the basement, right near where we worked in the call center, huge things with lights on them that had to be kept cold for optimum workings. Now, like you said that technology is so tiny, nothing like what it as back then. 

    It’s scary to consider we might be being listened to also. I knew Facebook was connected to Amazon, and the ads displayed on Facebook were targeted based on what you search on Amazon, and I was sort of OK with that, but this is more than that…  This is scary. 

    • Annie

      Cell phones have the ability to triangulate your location via cellphone towers…even if you do not have internet on your phone. Police have used the ability to triangulate to locate criminals for over a decade that I’m aware of. The brother of a friend of mine went off of the deep end. Stole a car, did some other crazy stuff. He was aware of this so he would call his family for brief periods once a day, in a location away from his hideout. After he completed the call he would power the phone off and remove the battery for added protection. He missed a step after one call. I’m not certain if he used the phone for too long or what happened but the police tracked him down and arrested him.

      After hearing about that from my friend (who didn’t think it was creepy at all and was just thankful that his brother had been located), I did a bit of research on the subject. The only way you can prevent a cell phone from tracking your location is to power it off and remove the battery. If you cannot remove the battery, you are out of luck unless you wrap your phone in a Faraday Cage. You can search for that online to locate a tutorial. I have heard of the extremely paranoid doing both–removing the battery AND wrapping the phone in a homemade Faraday Cage, due to the risk that cellphone companies may be sticking a backup battery into the devices just in case you DO remove the battery. I have no verification of that claim; it comes from folks with larger tinfoil hats than I wear :). Edward Snowden reportedly would stick his cell phone in a microwave (did not turn the microwave on, of course). Microwaves are essentially Faraday Cages due to the fact that they are designed to prevent radiation leaking from the device when you heat your food in them.

      Did you know that you can power off a device, think it’s off, and it not be off? The Windows 10 desktop computer I purchased back in 2017 taught me that. I can shut it completely off, even drop down to the command line to shut it off, and during the early morning hours it will power itself back up and start working. I’d left the speakers on high one night after shutting it off and had the living daylights scared out of me when it happened! Who (and why) do our computers have this ability? Back in the early days, when you shut off a computer it STAYED off. I unplugged that desktop after it happened, and I’ve been so spooked I’ve not touched it since. Dragged out an old laptop and installed Linux to use while I figure out how to handle that.

      And I’ve talked to people about it. They all say “well you don’t have anything to worry about if you don’t do anything wrong.” REALLY? The cops went after a woman who shopped for a pressure cooker online! Target outed a young pregnant girl to her family by sending her maternity ads! What if her family had been one of those super-religious types who KILL women that have sex out of wedlock? She would have DIED!

      So yes, I am more than a bit paranoid after that little incident.

  • Essie

    Annie, the harvesting and selling of data is a huge and lucrative market. Yes, we are being watched (look at all the cameras installed since 9/11) and listened to. Yes, the government is collecting information on us and has been for years. The DMV sells our address when we renew our car registration. When we graduate from school- high school, college, why do we start receiving all the credit card and insurance solicitations? When we reach age 62, AARP starts mailing us, health insurance companies start mailing us, life insurance companies start mailing us. Our data is being sold. Fortunately for the government and unfortunately for us, with today’s technology, the government can collect more information more efficiently. It is amazing to me and infuriating that the credit giants know so much about me. WTF! We do aid and abet this by our choice of using the internet, often opting into free things such as gmail, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc, and we sign away our rights to privacy in the terms of use. Here is an interesting read on data brokers. Big money is being made at our expense. https://www.fastcompany.com/90310803/here-are-the-data-brokers-quietly-buying-and-selling-your-personal-information. I have a smart phone and use Google Fi for my carrier. The phone has turned on in response to conversations I am having with friends or co-workers and offered assistance. Google Fi sent me, for free, with my acceptance, a Google Nest Mini-Smart Speaker. It was stupid of me to accept it but, hey, it was free. It does have the option to turn off the microphone but… is it really off???

    • Annie

      Thanks for the link, Essie!
      Have you heard about the book that Edward Snowden released? It’s called Permanent Record. I’ve not gotten very far in it, but the beginning has made me realize why he did what he did. In his place, I would have done the same thing I think. I’ll know more when I finish it but you are right–the amount of data collected on us is massive.

  • Tammara L Mills

    I’ve said for years that we were being watched only to have people tell me that I”m a conspiracy theorist and a crackpot. It does not make me glad to be right. It deeply disappoints me actually. I know what’s coming and so did George Orwell. That’s why he tried to warn people so long ago. Read his books folks and then read between the lines.