A few things that aren’t true about privacy

Privacy is big news – and for good reason.

It’s amazing how much information some organisations collect about you – and it’s not even only when you’re online.

From websites that track what you do to show you adverts – and then you see the adverts on different websites, which is a bit spooky… or even on different devices…

From tablets, phones or computers that might have the microphone set to on – listening all the time for particular words (I know it sounds a bit paranoid, but it’s true of many devices – and it’s not even the ones that have been hacked)

From hackers using the webcams built into most modern tablets, phones or laptops…

To crooks using Social Media sites that store too much info to find out enough about you to pretend to be you… and then to contact organisations like banks, the DVLA or so on and pretend they are you.

To the huge amounts of very private information the government collects about everyone (and whether you trust them or not, they’ve shown time and time again that they can’t be trusted to keep it safe from others).

So privacy is a genuine issue – but it’s not helped by some of the media spreading stories that simply aren’t true. And it can be hard to tell them apart.

So here are some of the scare stories you shouldn’t believe… because they’re not true.

Scare Story no 1: “Facebook/Google/Microsoft sell your data to advertisers”
I hear this one a lot. You know how it happens – you look for something on the web, say new watches. Then later you’re browsing, reading the news or checking Facebook and suddenly there are dozens of adverts for watches.

It’s reasonable to think that Google or whoever have sold your data to the advertisers, who now know who you are and that you might want a watch.

But that’s not what happens.

What happens is Facebook, Google and the rest run adverts on webpages. Google in particular run adverts on webpages they don’t even own – for example online newspapers often have adverts that are actually run by Google.

So in this case, Google know you’ve been searching for watches (because you used their search engine to search for them – typing “watches” into Google).

So when you’re on a site that has Google’s adverts on it (say you’re reading the Telegraph), then Google show you adverts for watches instead of for something random like vacuum cleaners.

But the Telegraph never find out anything about you from that – and nor do the watch companies.

So it’s not true to say that Google have sold your data to the watch company, or to the Telegraph – they’ve used it themselves to choose which advert to show you.

Whether you’re happy with that is another matter. You might prefer it because you get adverts about things you’re more likely to be interested in or you might just find it too creepy. If you aren’t happy about it, there are things you can do about it – but at least you know what’s actually happening.

Scare Story no 2: “Google/Microsoft/Yahoo! read all my emails”
If you have an email account with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo or even one of the others you might hear people say that that company is reading your emails.

Sometimes they’ll put it that they have computers reading your emails – which is nearer the truth.

But what’s actually happening is that if you use the webmail system for reading your emails, when you go into it, the computer looks at the words in the emails and uses them to show you adverts that are more relevant. It’s much the same process that happens on webpages – that’s why if you’re on a webpage about hats, you’re more likely to see adverts about hats.

They really don’t have teams of people reading your emails and saying “Bob’s got an email about going on holiday – let’s show him an advert about holiday insurance”.

If you’re worried about their computers “reading” your emails, that’s one thing, but remember it’s exactly the same kind of process they use to spot emails that look like spam and get rid of them so you don’t have hundreds of emails trying to con you everyday.

Again, you might not like the fact that they have computers scanning your emails for words related to things to show you adverts about – but don’t be led to believe it’s real people.

On the other hand it is often surprisingly easy to hack someone’s emails so you can read them… and not only that change emails to and from them, which is far more worrying.

Scare Story no 3: “Facebook are changing privacy settings so everything you’ve ever done on it will be completely public”
This one does the rounds on Facebook every so often – a message saying that Facebook are changing their settings and everything you’ve ever done on Facebook, even if you made it private, will now be completely public to everyone using Facebook, unless you put a note in a box saying you don’t accept that.

Or sometimes it’ll say they’re going to use all your holiday snaps (and whatever else you’ve shared, including photos of relatives, grandchildren or whatever) in their public marketing materials.

This one is simply rubbish – it’s just not true at all. In Facebook, you control how private (or not) each thing you post is. It’s definitely worth knowing about (as a simple example, if you’re about to go on holiday for a month, you only want friends knowing that – you don’t want it visible to the local burglars…)

Scare Story no 4: “Samsung have put a spy chip in their latest phones – in the battery”
This is another one that’s just rubbish – there’s no basis for it at all.

It all started when someone open their phone and spotted a “hidden” coil of wire on the battery. And assumed it was a way of Samsung spying on them.

Actually it’s a part of the phone – called a Near Field Communications antenna. It’s similar to the technology contactless credit cards use (and works over much the same distances). The idea is you can put your phone next to another and transfer photos or whatever. Or if you have certain apps, actually use your phone to pay for things in shops.

But since it has a range of a few centimetres, it wouldn’t make a very good spying device unless the spies are very close indeed to you…

Besides, if Samsung (or anyone else) wanted to spy on you, most phones nowadays have internet connections. That’d be a much easier way to do it. (And in fact I was gobsmacked last time I went on holiday when I discovered that Google knew exactly where I’d been, what route I took, what time I arrived, when we went to the pub for tea and so on… but it is possible to turn that feature off.)

Phew – as I said at the start, I’m not trying to make out that you should never worry about privacy at all. There are genuine issues. Not least crooks being able to find out enough about you to pretend to be you. But at least now you know some of the things you don’t need to worry about.