How to stop your technology from sharing all your personal information

When an American family recently discovered their Amazon Echo device was recording their private conversations and sending them to a random contact, they were understandably horrified, immediately unplugging the technology and vowing to never trust it again.

The incident, in the wake of the Facebook scandal, served as yet another stark reminder that while technology is making our lives more convenient than ever, it also poses massive threats to our privacy.

Whether we're scrolling our phones or laptops, ordering an Uber, planning a holiday or just mapping a run, there's no question there's more personal information circulating than most people would care to consider.

Beneath the surface

IT security consultant Roger Smith says there's one major issue when it comes to technology tracking, and that's the sheer fact that most of us don't take it seriously.

"People don't realise what they're doing," he says. "We're only focused on convenience ... having our shiny new toys."

Privacy, or rather the lack of it, is set to become an even greater concern as artificial intelligence moves into the mainstream, Smith believes.

"Google is in the process of moving away from their very, very clever algorithm towards artificial intelligence," he says. "It is going to get worse before it gets better."

So how is our information being collected? And what's it being used for?

The more you know

Professor Matt Warren, deputy director of Deakin University's Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation, says people happily use technology, but often don't understand its intricacies.

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When was the last time you checked the privacy settings on the apps you have installed, for instance – let alone read the terms and conditions?

Professor Warren says some apps track your location constantly. "There's one major Australian retailer who actually tracks your GPS location when you're not using their shopping app.

"The other aspect is we're using a lot of technology, like our Fitbits and health applications, not realising they can also GPS track us."

False security

There are a number of other devices, such as security cameras, which ironically don't have any, or much, security built into them. Professor Warren points to the website Insecam.com, which allows users to search live webcams around the world that don't have password protection.

He says marketers or companies collate all of the information we're inadvertently giving away – either using it or selling it on.

"The more they know about individuals, the more they can build a profile about their users," says Professor Warren. "If they can track that every Friday you go to the pub, they could then market information to you about buying snacks or alcohol that you could have at home."

Of course, many of us aware that cookies follow us around our devices. It's no coincidence that a Google search for a holiday in Fiji will result in ads for flights and hotels flashing up.

Hidden hazards

But Smith says while Facebook, for instance, tracks what we like, comment, poke and follow, there's much more to it.

"There are also other systems lurking in the background – invisible pixels and Facebook icons on everyone's website that constantly feed back to artificial intelligence for a better 'user experience'."

So how can we prevent – or at least minimise – the amount of information that technology companies gather?

Hide your tracks

A starting point is to check the privacy settings of any phone apps, and turn off GPS tracking - or only allow it to switch on while you're using the app. Bear in mind that although you might turn off the tracking on your Android system, it doesn't guarantee that it's totally turned off, says Smith.

Smith says switching your desktop Chrome setting to 'anonymous mode' can also minimise tracking.

Search engines such as Google and Bing track our every keystroke. If that gives you the willies, Smith says another option is to use search engine duckduckgo.com, which won't build a profile of you.

He says Apple is more stringent on security than Android, and its apps must meet more requirements. Beware of downloading an Android app straight from an independent website because it may have been tampered with, Smith says.

Catch 22

Professor Warren also recommends taking a close look at the privacy settings on your phone.

"You've actually got control over these apps, over the technology," he says.

"Of course there's been situations where any sort of technology can be manipulated. But as long as you keep your operating system updated, and you keep your apps updated, it should overcome any weaknesses from the technology platform level."

In terms of using Google, he concedes: "it's a bit of a dilemma".

"I suppose it's just being aware that when you actually use that technology that you are handing over information for that free service."

Or, as the theory goes, if you're not paying for it, then you are the product.