Tech Secrets: 21 Things 'They' Don’t Want You to Know

Eavesdropping Webcams, spying ISPs, toxic PCs, and more: dangers the industry is hiding, and what you can do about them

"The Internet never forgets," says the University of Washington's Tadayoshi Kohno. "In the old days, if you wanted to make data disappear from your computer, you could take out your hard drive and take a sledgehammer to it. Today, much of our data is in the cloud. There's no single hard drive to smash any more."

The Fix: Kohno and other UW researchers have developed a technology called Vanish, which adds a "self-destruct" expiration mechanism to data shared across the Net. Vanish works by encrypting text and then distributing pieces of the encryption key across a dozen peer-to-peer networks. After a specified period of time, Vanish starts losing the keys, making the data unrecoverable. It can work with e-mail or with any text entered into a Web form, Kohno says. Though Vanish is still just a research project, curious users can download its open-source Firefox plug-in.

You Can Escape Almost Any Service Contract Without Penalties

You say you agreed to a two-year service contract to get a healthy discount on your broadband service or smartphone? You may be able to ditch your obligation without having to pay the usual early-termination fee--if your service provider has changed the terms on you in the time since you signed up.

Last December, Sprint sent a notice to its customers alerting them to a 40-cent monthly increase on all lines and a $5 increase on accounts with spending limits. That constituted a "materially adverse change of contract" per Sprint's terms; this opened a porthole for unhappy Sprint customers to jump ship without incurring early-termination fees, which can amount to $150 or more. Similar changes in administration fees allowed T-Mobile users to switch last September and Verizon users to opt out in the spring of 2008.

The Fix: If your provider changes terms, and you decide to leave as a result, contact the company within the time period specified in your contract (usually 30 to 60 days). Make it clear that you're switching because of the "materially adverse" nature of the change.

The NSA Is Tapping Your Data Stream

Remember all the hubbub about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping? Nowadays, the National Security Agency still sifts through the petabytes of information traveling along the nation's fiber backbone--but legally, thanks to some after-the-fact lawmaking by Congress.

Some quick background: In December 2005, the New York Times reported that the NSA had engaged in domestic digital surveillance without U.S. court approval. In January 2006, former AT&T technician Mark Klein provided documents to the Electronic Frontier Foundation confirming that the NSA had installed surveillance equipment at a major Internet hub in San Francisco.

In 2006 and 2008, the EFF filed suit against AT&T and the federal government, respectively, over warrantless wiretapping. Both suits were rebuffed by federal courts and are currently on appeal. In July 2008, Congress passed a bill granting retroactive immunity to telecoms for their participation in the NSA's wiretaps.

"What people don't know and should is that there is a dragnet sucking up all their communications so the government can review them," says the EFF's Jennifer Granick. "AT&T is still routing all of its data traffic through the NSA."

The Fix: Short of pulling a Ted Kaczynski and holing up in a cabin in Montana, there isn't much you can do. Last September, four Democratic senators introduced the Retroactive Immunity Appeal Act, which would make telecoms accountable for their role in warrantless spying, but the bill hasn't gotten far. In the meantime, avoid googling "Osama" and "improvised explosive device" on the same day, unless you enjoy surprise visits from the Men in Black.

Your Facebook Apps Are Spying on You

Sure, it's silly and fun to play Mafia Wars or to take one of the 2,345,678 quizzes on Facebook. When you install one of these apps, though, it gains access to any information you've designated as available to 'Everyone'. Per Facebook's Platform guidelines, this can include a huge amount of information, including your name, photo, birthday, location, job history, religion, political point of view, relationships, favorite books and movies, and so on. Much of this information is shared by default. It's the motherload for data miners.

Facebook requires each app to adhere to your privacy preferences and to have its own privacy policy, but it doesn't require apps to have a very good policy. Some, like Farmville's policy, are fairly comprehensive; others appear to have been written by 12-year-olds.

The Fix: Facebook recently introduced privacy controls that help limit what information apps can access. Use them. To start, log in and go to Account, Privacy Settings, Profile Information. Change any setting marked 'Everyone' to Only Friends or Friends of Friends. Then go to Applications and Websites, What your friends can share about you, and uncheck most if not all of the boxes.

Even then, there's some information that Facebook simply won't let you withhold, including your name, profile photo, friends, fan pages, and geographic location, plus the networks you belong to. So think twice before you start harvesting virtual crops or install "Lover of the Day."

Your Geolocation Data Is Not Private

An army of marketers is looking to build profiles based on your habits and to sell you location-based services.

Telecommunications carriers maintain what is known as customer proprietary network information (CPNI), which can include details about your rate plans, who you called, and your location. By law, carriers can't sell your CPNI without your permission, but how they obtain your approval can be quite sneaky. Often they'll simply send an e-mail or letter giving you the opportunity to opt out; if you don't respond, they're free to sell your CPNI to whomever they please.

That doesn't necessarily mean they do so right now. But as more phones become location aware and geocentric services become more widely used, the temptation may be overwhelming. The market for location data is expected to reach nearly $13 billion by 2014, according to Juniper Research.

A company that has your geographic data could sell it to stores and restaurants in your area or offer to pass sales promotions along to you on those businesses' behalf. The classic example: You're walking by a store when your phone receives a text message offering a 20 percent discount--but only if you go in and shop right now. Or you might get an e-mail saying, "We saw that you passed by our store the other day, and we want you to know that we're having a sale." As yet such scenarios are merely theoretical, but they're highly creepy just the same.

The Fix: At this writing, Congress is holding hearings about geolocation data and privacy, which could result in new consumer safeguards (but don't hold your breath). In the meantime, you can tell your carrier not to share your CPNI: Read the privacy policy on your provider's Website and follow the steps required for opting out.

When not polishing his tin-foil hat, Contributing Editor Dan Tynan tends his geek-humor empire at eSarcasm. Follow him on Twitter: @Tynan_on_tech.

This story, "Tech Secrets: 21 Things 'They' Don’t Want You to Know" was originally published by PCWorld.

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