No, don’t get excited. There is no tin foil hat that will make you look anything other than a paranoid crackpot, destined for the nearest loony bin.


But after hearing on ‘The Naked Scientists’ podcast about all the privacy issues connected to smart phones and tablets, I am starting to wonder if we are actually paranoid enough.

Not a problem for me, I have nothing to hide, you think. Well, actually, it’s not as simple as that.

For instance, if you have a smart phone and connect to wifi access points with it, it will remember the names of every access point you have connected to. Then if you leave the wifi on on your phone, while you are out and about, the phone will keep looking incessantly for a familiar access point to connect to. Simplified, it will send out signals along the lines of: ‘are you there, XXX access point? are you there, YYY access point? are you there, ZZZ access point?’ etc etc all the way down the list. So what? Well, these signals can be captured and read by anyone within wifi distance, without you knowing. From the names of the access points they could work out where you work, or if you are a tourist which hotel you are staying at. Or other places you have visited or are regularly visiting, such as a health club. Or which school your kids go to.

Scared yet?

Don’t leave the wifi on when you are not using it. It will save your battery as well.

Unfortunately there is more. If you ever sell an old phone, or give it away to a recycling company, people are generally told to reset their phone back to factory settings before they do this. This is supposed to delete your personal data.

On some phones this actually happens, but others only delete the file tables, in other words, the access links to the files. The files themselves are still there, only you cannot see them anymore. But with the appropriate software, all these files can be retrieved. Your contacts. All your messages. All your photos, of your family, your kids, your house possibly in the background. Even worse, photos often have the coordinates where they were taken embedded in the file. So if you take photos at home…

Do yourself a favour. If you ever sell or give away an old phone reset it by all means, but afterwards upload a video until the storage is maxed out. This will overwrite any old files left behind.

Which brings me to posting photos online. I use an old digital camera with a good lense, but not smart enough to know what its location is, and therefore unable to include this information in the photo file, for anyone in the word to read and find out where I live. I turn off the location on my iphone and ipad, because I take photos with those too.

And finally, although I am quite sure that there is lots more I haven’t touched on, another privacy threat I want to mention are free apps. Someone has to pay the developers for their work, and they are usually paid via ads, but also because apps can harvest information on the user that can be sold to third parties. You have probably all heard by now about the Samsung TV scandal. But many of your apps also have access to the microphone on your phone or ipad, your photos, maybe your contacts and your messages. Unfortunately kids apps are particularly notorious for privacy violations. To find out if your apps phone home to gossip about you to Big Brother, have a look at the website. This Carnegie Mellon University website researches apps and grades them from A-D for privacy.


Stay safe. Please, make this your ‘tin foil hat week’ and take some appropriate steps to safeguard your privacy and the privacy of your loved ones.