Like most parents, Deborah Ross fits a lot into a busy schedule, so she relies on technology for help.
However, she admits she sometimes takes that ease for granted and doesn’t necessarily think about how much her computer knows about her, or who has access to that information.
“I shop from my phone, on Peapod, Amazon, Nordstrom,” said Ross. “It’s so easy.”
But our devices can do a lot with what we share.
For instance, when activated, one of Apple’s newest features on the iPhone iOS 8 update called “Hey Siri” allows users to speak with Siri hands free, as long as your phone is plugged in, tech expert Lon Seidman said.
Apple takes Siri another step forward by recognizing when users might need suicide prevention help. When Siri interprets words implying suicide, iPhone’s voice provides information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“And in this instance, Apple’s trying to figure out, if we know people are having this conversation with the phone — because people are — are we obligated to try and help this person out?”Seidman said.
Google has a similar feature that users activate by saying “OK Google,” which can answer general questions as well as some personal ones with the help of your Gmail account.
“Basically, when it gets activated, it tries to figure out and listen to what you’re saying. But it could misinterpret “Hey Siri” [or “OK Google”] because it’s always listening for that kind of word,” Seidman said.
So, if you say words that sound like “Hey Siri” or “OK Google,” your devices might take that as a cue to listen in to everything else that follows.
But how would we know if computers went too far?
A quick Facebook search shows complaints of people asking why Facebook Messenger needs access to things like our microphones and cameras, which you sign off on by downloading the app.
Some wonder if these sites could sell that data to advertisers, but Facebook says they don’t listen in on our conversations, and watch-dog groups such as Digital Advertising Alliance haven’t raised any red flags.
“Ad targeting is getting so good, they probably don’t even need to listen to your conversations to know what products or services they should put in your feed,” Seidman said.
“We have to get inside the consumer’s head to understand how they think,” Chad Turner, co-founder of Hartford -based Go Media said.
Go Media helps clients find a target audience and Turner showed how some ad targeting works by window-shopping for shoes on Nordstrom’s website.
Turner did not buy them and instead closed the tab, then went on Facebook and the same shoes appeared as the first advertisement on Turner’s screen.
Turner said you can see exactly how many companies follow you from site to site through another website called Ghostery.com, which shows users a running list of ad brokers as they track your movements online.
“We spend a lot of money to avoid advertising,” Turner said. “Marketers don’t want to waste their money showing things to you if you’re not interested in buying it.”
“None of this would be happening if it didn’t work,” Seidman added.
If that doesn’t sit well with you, you can browse the Internet incognito by simply disabling your cookies.
Going incognito works differently on every browser.
On Google Chrome, simply click the three gray lines at the top right corner of your screen and select “New Incognito Window.” On Apple’s Safari, choose "File," then “New Private Window.”
It does, however, come at a cost.
“You’re not going to have an enhanced Web experience as you normally do,” Turner said.
In short, you’ll have to log on to sites like Facebook every time you visit.
Whether you decide to browse privately or not, Seidman and Turner both want users to understand that everything we actively put online can — and often does — get stored as data somewhere else.
“If you do activate Siri and you ask it a question, whatever you are asking is going to a server. The recording of your voice is going to a server, and the text that gets created as a result of that gets stored and could be accessible later,” said Seidman.
To learn more on Apple's privacy, see the Apple Web site.