Your Personal Data is Up for Grabs: New Patents & New Scams Compromise Data Privacy

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Click to learn more about author Cathy Nolan.

How many ways can our privacy be compromised?  Recent patents and news articles can make us crazy thinking about how our privacy is being invaded both at work and in our homes.  First it was Amazon’s Echo and KitchenAid’s refrigerators recording what we said and transmitting it so that technicians could “improve” their products.  DNA that we thought was secure has been shared with law-enforcement. Google employs lobbyists who are working to modify rules on how companies can gather and store biometric data including fingerprints, iris scans and facial-recognition images and at the same time has filed a patent that describes a smart-home device that can identify emotions through audio signatures of crying, laughing, talking and shouting.

Amazon has been awarded patents for a wristband that would verify whether warehouse workers are correctly processing an item. Another patent by Amazon demonstrates the ability to understand a phone conversation between two people, and depending on the content, could be used to feed advertisements.

Sensors have been developed for automobile seatbelts, brakes, driver and passenger seats and a car’s GPS system to better evaluate insurance risk.  Get up from your office chair a lot?  There are sensors that businesses can install to track whether you are sitting at your desk and another to count how many keystrokes you have entered for the day.  What if you were standing in a check-out line and the store was recording everything you said?

Walmart has recently obtained a patent for sound sensors that would listen to the interaction between customers and checkers.  Walmart says the concept could help improve guest satisfaction and track performance metrics on its workers, but what about employee and shopper rights?  Although some of these patents may never be implemented, people are already asking, “When does it cross the line between data efficiency and an outright invasion of privacy?”

With all we have to worry about when it comes to losing personal data, now Congress is considering whether to make it easier for businesses to make robocalls.  If you are like most of us, not a day passes that you don’t receive at least one robocall—sell your timeshare, apply for a credit card, the IRS wants to talk to you, a charity wants a donation, or a candidate wants your vote. According to YouMail, a call-blocking app, in June alone there were 4 billion robocalls and 1 billion of those sought to steal financial or personal information.

Apparently, scammers are also on the rise despite the fact that all around us are articles on preventing identity theft, securing our data, and never giving out personal information.  According to the latest research, people who think they are too smart to fall for a scam, often are the easiest to victimize.  This is because they don’t believe they are vulnerable and often take risks while ignoring warning signs. This personality type might fall for a “one-time” deal, a “high-yield” investment, or a bogus “contest win”. Anyone who responds to this type of invitation soon finds out that to collect his contest winnings or invest in a better than average ROI, he must first send a wire-transfer to pay (or avoid) taxes.  Naturally after the person sends the money he never hears from the scammer again but important financial information has typically been disclosed.

A similar type of scam doesn’t ask for any money, instead you are offered a low-cost mortgage, a 0% credit card, or an extremely discounted vacation.  What the thief is looking for is your personal data and there are two ways of tricking you into providing it.  The first way is the easiest–you respond to one of the offers and eagerly provide sensitive data like your social security number (if it’s for a low-cost mortgage), or your passport number (if it’s a discounted cruise) but the great deal never materializes.  The second method is to get you to click on the text which installs malware that can collect your personal data

Cyber criminals are also targeting loyalty programs that reward customers with coupons or points.  The scammers send a phishing email that looks like the real thing and when you respond or try to print the coupon, malware is installed on your PC, and like other scams, the hackers have access to your private data.

What’s a person to do?  First of all, as we have warned many times, run from all unsolicited “deals” no matter how good they seem to be.  And don’t click on any link sent to you without verifying that is from a trusted sender.  Only answer your phone when you absolutely know who is calling, if it’s important they will leave a message and you can respond. To protect yourself, never give out your information to anyone claiming to be from a bank, insurance company or government agency without verification. Someone from the IRS or a financial institution is calling you?  Look up the legitimate phone number and/or official website and call or text back.  Data thieves are very skillful at sending emails with official looking names or logos.  If you do receive any offers via phone text and you are an AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint or Bell subscriber, you can report spam texts to your carrier by copying the original message and forwarding it to the number 7726 (SPAM) free of charge and you can also block the number from further calls.  Your phone provider will have instructions on blocking numbers.

Get rid of all unwanted or seldom-used apps.  The more you have the easier it is gather information about you.  Be very stingy about posting personal and family information on social media and the same goes for pictures.  Once a posting is out there, it’s out there forever, (or at least until the U.S. adopts a version of GDPR).

In addition, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) recommends keeping the security software, operating system and browsers on your computer up to date by setting these programs to update automatically. This helps protect your computer from identity thieves taking advantage of bugs or any security holes in outdated software, systems or browsers.

Remember any data or information about you on the internet is valuable to advertisers and tech companies are busily developing technologies for devices so that they can gather more.  Don’t make it easy for them. Follow the suggestions in this blog and look for more tips from organizations working to secure personal data.


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