top of page

Is there any truth that your computer is spying on you?

By Lisa Mullen

-Tech History-

Have you had that creepy feeling that your computer or phone is listening in on your conversations?

Maybe one day you’re sitting with your friends and talking about the cute pair of boots you bought at DSW. An hour later, as you're scrolling through Facebook, an ad for DSW pops up touting their latest shoe sale. What gives? Are you being spied on? For the most part, no. We as consumers freely give out lots of information willingly, whether we realize it or not.

Our current paranoia can be traced back to when webcams came on the scene in 1991. A group of Cambridge scientists rigged up a camera to monitor the level of coffee in a coffeepot in their breakroom.

This was to save them from making useless trips to the breakroom for coffee if there wasn’t any in the pot. This camera was hooked into their computer system and they were able to access the camera through their desktop computer. By the year 2000, webcams became standard on personal computers.

People could video conference with friends, family, and coworkers all from the convenience of their home. And this year has made video conferencing a necessity with the COVID-19 outbreak and the shutdowns that have gone with it.

As time passed, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram began to take up more of our time as our computers and smartphones connected us to each other. By 2010, Facebook launched the infamous ‘Like Button’ and began tracking its users in earnest.

Facebook then acquired Instagram in 2012 and began implementing features that can also track you through your likes and what you’re doing on Instagram. These include features like videos, direct messaging and advertising, giving Facebook access to more and more of your data as well as your camera and microphone because you have to give Facebook and Instagram permission to use them to be able to post certain items on these platforms.

Facebook and Instagram have become experts in tailoring the ads you see by using the posts and pages you “Like,” the statuses you post, and websites that you visit as well as combining it with the information on all your “Friends” that you follow on these platforms.

Facebook also offers the ability to use your Facebook account to sign in to other websites which gives them access to even more information to track what you like or what you might like to buy.

Then there is a company called Alphonso that creates software to collect what it calls television advertising data by listening in on what you’re watching on TV. This listening software is built into hundreds of apps including Shazam, a music identification app that works when you turn it on by listening to whatever is going on around you and then naming the song or TV program, again showing companies your likes and dislikes. So yes, our computers and phones do have the ability to listen in on us if we provide them with permission to do so.

Your computer and phone can also be hijacked by hackers who use malware or Remote Administration Tools known as RATS to access your computer’s camera and microphone and go through your files and photos looking for your personal information such as passwords. They can then use this information to overtake your computer and demand money from you to restore the computer back to you.

Hackers can gain entry when you click on certain banners or visit certain websites without you even knowing that it occurred.

There are many ways to protect yourself from hackers.

Keep your virus protection up to date on your computer. Avoid suspicious websites and only download software you trust. Don’t open emails from people you don’t know, especially attachments because that’s where hackers like to hide malware that attaches to your computer and gives them remote access.

To keep Facebook and Instagram at bay, you can refuse to give them access to location data on both your phone and your computer as well as disable permission for Facebook and Instagram to access your camera and microphone on your devices.

Unfortunately, it may be almost impossible to stop Facebook and Instagram from using your personal data to send you ads they think you may be interested in but admit it, doesn’t it sometimes come in handy when you really are looking for something to buy? It’s like they read your mind.



bottom of page