Are your gadgets spying on you?

Smart TVs are Internet-connected and have a microphone for voice commands that the CIA tapped into to spy on some people


Your Smart TV can be used to spy on you.
Your Smart TV can be used to spy on you.

According to WikiLeaks revelations earlier this month, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hacked computers, phones, even televisions. The CIA hack was codenamed “Weeping Angel”. Titled “Vault 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed”, the revelation alleges that the CIA developed hacks to break into Apple and Android smartphones, computers and a specific series of Samsung smart TVs made in 2012 and 2013. These TVs are Internet-connected and have a microphone for voice commands that the CIA tapped into to spy on some people.

And, says WikiLeaks, this is how the agency did it: “After infestation, Weeping Angel places the target TV in a ‘Fake-Off’ mode, so that the owner falsely believes the TV is off when it is on. In ‘Fake-Off’ mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a covert CIA server.”

Samsung, Apple, Google and Microsoft have since issued statements that they have fixed the issues with software updates, or are working on these vulnerabilities and will be releasing the fixes via software updates soon enough.

Fans of the sci-fi TV series Doctor Who will remember those predator aliens called Weeping Angels who acquire the shape of winged statues when people look at them, but attack them the moment they look away. Someone in the CIA must be a Doctor Who fan.

I don’t possess a smart TV; I have a non-smart set to which I have attached a media player to watch Netflix. But I have other devices that are connected to the Internet and are always on: my phone, laptop, desktop and the routers. And I also have a Google Home, a voice-activated speaker. So, should I be worried about hackers?

There are two issues here: Internet security and privacy. Your level of concern, and the steps you need to take to protect yourself, depend entirely on your assessment of your needs. If you feel vulnerable, you might want to follow the advice of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey, who said recently that he sticks “a piece of tape over the (laptop) camera. Because I saw somebody smarter than I am had a piece of tape over their camera”.

You can find Webcam clips for laptops on Amazon, and I’ve seen some “kiss clips” online to mask cameras, but why waste money when you can use a simple piece of tape? However, while hackers will not be able to see what you are up to, the tape won’t stop them from getting into your device.

One of my eeriest experiences was when there was a problem with my MacBook and I called customer care. The person at the other end heard me out, asked me if he could take remote control of my laptop, and told me to sit back and relax. For the next few minutes, I saw the cursor move up and down on the screen, with applications opening and closing in rapid-fire. He fixed the problem, but watching the screen was, well, scary.

If you think you need an extra layer of security, you can use VPN (virtual private network) for Web browsing. A VPN masks your location; it provides an encrypted connection, especially if you need to visit websites that are not secure. The market research firm GlobalWebIndex says a quarter of the world’s adult online users have used a VPN service. In countries such as China, people use VPNs to access websites that are blocked by the government.

There are any number of VPN services but if you do decide to get one, get a reliable, paid subscription. People use VPNs to watch foreign TV shows and movies that are not available in the country where they are located.

A report on the BBC website says “65 million people regularly access the BBC catch-up TV service using virtual private networks (VPNs) or proxy servers”. If that is the case, why don’t they just charge an online subscription for their service? I will be happy to pay to watch their new series, SS-GB, based on a Len Deighton novel.

That leaves me with Siri and my Google Home, the virtual assistants. Every time I look at the speaker I think of Weeping Angels: Does it listen to my conversations the moment I turn my head the other way? WikiLeaks says all voice-controlled devices are vulnerable; Apple and Google have clarified that there is no reason to worry.

So you decide if you feel vulnerable and want to disable Siri. I don’t consider myself a high-value target, so I’ll risk it and let it be.

There’s no such thing as hundred per cent safety. But I see no point worrying because there really isn’t much more that I can do.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.

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