Paranoid Android


Last week I had the most unpleasant experience: someone hacked my e-mail and sent fraudulent e-mails out to most, if not all, of my contact list. It’s not the first time this has happened (first time for me, though) and it served to remind me yet again of something that I know I’ve written about in this column before.

The more technology progresses, if that’s the right word, the more vulnerable we become to individuals and companies (and even governments) who want to take advantage of the technology for many varied reasons. It may just be someone having some “fun” by messing around with your day and reputation; but it can also be far more serious, far more malicious than that. Two years ago, a journalist with the Telegraph newspaper in England deliberately had her computer hacked by a company to see precisely how vulnerable she was to malicious attack.

What she found was very unsettling. After taking time to go through her Facebook and Google profile, use a genealogical website to identify her birth date, family members, etc., they were able to use a legal program on her computer to gain access. “They were not only able to see everything I did on the computer, but also control the computer themselves – open up applications, browsers, download cookies, control the camera and microphone and all manner of other things.” They even took a photograph of her using her webcam and then posted it on-line. As she said, if these had been serious hackers, they “could stay tapped into my computer for days or weeks, watching everything I did; they could install a keylogger and record every password I typed into every website I visited; they could go through my emails and lift out copies of my passport that I sent to my solicitor when buying a flat last year; they could watch as I connected to my work computer over the network and look at files I had stored there.

Even if I restarted my computer (which I did), the malware they had installed on it would call back to the hackers’ systems as soon as I turned it on again, giving them full remote access control once again”.

That is scary enough; but some individuals have had their computer hacked in this way and then used to conduct criminal activities, such as downloading or sharing pirated programs, even child pornography. They found it very hard to prove that they had not been responsible for these activities. In the case of the Telegraph journalist, she had a very secure computer, which actually limited the damage a hacker could do. Lesson to be learned: install anti-virus and malware programs. Change your passwords regularly. If you’re not sure how to check your computer for incursions, get a professional (there are a few in North Grenville ready and able for the job) to do a systematic check-up of your PC, laptop, iPad, or whatever else you use on-line.

Does this seem paranoid? Well, it’s not just the hackers you have to be aware of: Google and Facebook are watching you too! Both of these companies use what are called algorithms to monitor and control the results of searches you perform every day, or else decide what postings will make it to your Facebook page. Last year, Time Magazine did a report on how Facebook prevents “bad news” stories from appearing on your page. Their algorithm monitors what pages and stories you “like”, and makes sure that they get preference over other postings. If you haven’t contacted a “Friend” in a while, their posts cease to appear on your page.

They even want to control your mood, by deciding what posts would make you happy or upset. Hard to believe? Time’s article stated that: “Facebook sparked a firestorm in June of last year when it published a study detailing how it purposefully changed the number of positive or negative posts in 700,000 users’ News Feeds in an attempt to alter their moods. (Facebook eventually acknowledged that the research was mishandled.)”.

Facebook is even hiding messages telling people a friend or relative has died, for goodness sake, in case it makes us sad and leave Facebook for a while, losing Facebook valuable ad clicks. It does come back to money. Apparently, we’re not free to decide for ourselves what we see and learn. This, in an apparently informed society where technology has given us access to greater sources of information than we’ve ever had before.

Technology has brought huge benefits, as have Google and Facebook and personal computers. But we need to start watching the watchers who want to control our moods, what information we are given, and with whom we get to communicate. Beware the paranoid androids. On-line reality may not always be what it seems. Technology does not come without a cost.


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