How to protect your family online
With Facebook under fire and Amazon sparking fears of eavesdropping, Alex Meehan has the guide to minding your privacy on the internet
How private are your social media privacy settings? And how sure are you that your smart speakers aren't absorbing household information, as well as pumping out sound? As you interact online, you may be feeling less and less sure that your personal data, and that of your family, is secure.
This week has seen Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg give testimony at a congressional hearing, while the social media giant started rolling out its damage limitation measures in the face of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Users among the reported 87 million accounts that had their details trawled will see a link appear at the top of their news feed, directing them to remove apps they no longer need.
If your data was improperly used, Facebook will share a 'protecting your information' link and explain that a website a Facebook friend used was able to steal information about you.
Meanwhile, Amazon has sparked concerns with its plans to programme Alexa, a voice-controlled virtual assistant used in the Echo smart speakers, to eavesdrop on owners' conversations in order to build profiles of their likes and dislikes, which could be mined for ads and product recommendations.
All of this is happening as a result of a growing trend to get consumers to reveal as much as possible about themselves online. But who's interest is this really in, and how can you make sure you don't give away more than you should?
Protect your log in details
"If you look at online privacy and ask 'what's the worst thing that could happen?', for most people it's losing money or having private information posted publicly for all the world to see," says Michele Neylon, whose company Blacknight Services specialises in internet security. "In both of those cases, the key to it not happening is being very careful about the information you put out there."
For example, many social media sites encourage you to share information that can be used to put together a picture of who you are. Information like your birth date, names of family members, phone numbers, email addresses and more can be used to build up a digital picture of a person.
This in turn can be used to impersonate you to gain access to banking and other online services. So think carefully before giving this information out.
Find out how much the internet knows about you
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, many people have reassessed their Facebook security settings and which apps they've given access to.
It's possible to find out what other online services have on file about you too. Take Google as an example. Go to takeout.google.com to download a complete copy of your data and prepare to be surprised.
If you use Google's many products, such as Maps, Gmail, Search and Google Drive, you'll discover that you leave a massive digital footprint as you do so. Google knows which videos you've watched online, where you've been, what you've searched for, what files you've stored online and what's in them. If you choose to, you can delete this information.
Turn off open smartphone settings
Modern smartphones contain wireless features that allow you to send and receive files between devices. Mostly found on Apple's iPhone devices, this feature is great for swapping pictures between friends but it can be a liability if it's set to be accessible to just anyone.
For example, it's not unheard of for women in public places to get a notification that someone is sending them an unsolicited file, only to open it and find an explicit image. To prevent this, on an iPhone go into Settings, General and Airdrop and set your restrictions to Contacts Only.
The Internet of Things?
It's increasingly common for internet connectivity to be built into all sorts of devices from coffee machines to fridges to toasters. Called the Internet of Things (IoT), this trend is seeing more and more of the world around us become plugged into the internet.
Along with the benefits that come with this - such as being able to turn your lights and home heating systems on remotely - there are also liabilities. One major issue is that most IoT devices don't have anywhere near the same security measures built into them that our smartphones and desktop devices have. Many can be easily hacked. Do you really need an internet connected fridge? If you can do without it, perhaps you should.
Protect old email addresses
Most of us have several email addresses we've used at different times in the past, and it's easy to forget about them. But if you used them to sign up for online services and those service providers have been caught up in hacking scandals, then your details could have been compromised.
In 2016, internet company Yahoo announced it had lost the personal data of three billion users, including their real names, email addresses, dates of birth and telephone numbers. In 2014, the online auction site Ebay lost the information of 145 million users, again including names, addresses, dates of birth and encrypted passwords.
If you want to see if your data has been caught up in any of them, there's an easy way to check.
Visit a site like hacked-emails.com and enter your email address. You may be surprised at how many hacked lists your details have found their way on to.
Get a password manager
"Passwords are a massive problem with people who aren't tech-savvy - they tend to use the same password for all their online sites, which means that if one of them gets compromised, a thief can try that password on lots of other sites and more often than not, they'll get lucky," says Michele.
A solution is to use a password manager application such as LastPass or 1Password that generates and stores a complicated and difficult to crack password for each of the sites you use on your phone or computer.
Be more suspicious
According to Michael Conway, director of IT security company Renaissance, older people who are typically thought of as being uncomfortable with technology can actually have an advantage when it comes to online privacy.
"Many younger people think nothing of agreeing to all sorts of terms and conditions when they want to use a website or an app - to them that seems normal. But older people stop and think a lot more," he said.
"When they're asked probing personal questions about their background or job, they are more inclined to ask, why do you need to know? Why should I put in my date of birth? Why should I put in my mother's maiden name?'"
Update your software regularly
Conway recommends always using software that is up to date. If you're not comfortable updating software yourself, then get a trusted friend or family member to do it for you.
"Don't give away any confidential information online that you wouldn't do on the phone and remember that if something looks or sounds too good to be true, it probably is," he says.
Curate your kids' digital legacy
It's natural to want to share pictures of your kids, but you should think twice before uploading them to the public internet.
It's one thing to send photos via email or WhatsApp to a private family group, it's a different thing to upload them to a Facebook or Instagram page.
Why? For a start, facial recognition algorithms can now identify people from their pictures so they start to have a digital footprint from the first picture. Is it really fair to allow commercial organisations to start collating data on your kids before they're old enough to choose to have accounts of their own?