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Tech secrets: 21 things 'they' don't want you to know

Dan Tynan | April 1, 2010
Eavesdropping Webcams, spying ISPs, toxic PCs, and more: dangers the industry is hiding, and what you can do about them

Though electronics manufacturers have made great strides in reducing their use of harmful chemicals in recent years, tech gear still may contain brominated flame retardants--chemicals used to reduce the risk of fire that studies have linked to lower IQs in children and reduced fertility rates.

"BFRs used in the manufacture of circuit boards can be converted to highly toxic brominated dioxins and furans if the products are burned at the end of their life," says Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a visiting professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley.

But even daily use can be dangerous, says Blum. "When used in plastic casings, BFRs can also migrate out of the plastic into the dust in the room and then enter the body via the hand-to-mouth contact."

The Fix: While major manufacturers such as Apple, Dell, and HP have moved away from BFRs in recent years, certain products built before 2009--especially devices that generate a lot of heat, like laptops and laser printers--may still contain BFRs, says Michael Kirschner, associate director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "Do some research," says Kirschner. "Almost all vendors now have an environmental section on their Websites that tells you about the materials they use."

The news isn't all bad, he adds. "Most manufacturers in the consumer arena have gotten the message to get additive BFRs out of their products."

As for older products still in people's homes? "They probably need to be replaced anyway, right?" Kirschner jokes.

Antivirus Software Won't Protect You

Security programs won't really protect you from the Internet's worst nasties. "Antivirus software only catches the low-hanging fruit," says Mark Kadritch, CEO of The Security Consortium and author of Endpoint Security. The increasing number of zero-day vulnerabilities--coupled with some vendors' failure to fix security holes in their products for months or even years--means that even the most up-to-date antimalware products may still be behind the curve when it counts, he says.

The Fix: You can't do without security software (see our Security Info Center for reviews of the latest security packages, plus how-tos and news), but to protect yourself more effectively you need to take extra steps such as saving your data to encrypted drives and installing VMware or other software that lets you create virtual machines and discard them as they become infected.

"At the end of the day, if you suspect your system has been compromised, blow it away and click 'restore' in VMware," Kadritch says. "You may lose some e-mail, but you'll get a brand-new system with the latest, greatest updates."

Your Cell Phone Is a Homing Beacon

We'll bet that you never leave home without your handset. Well, guess what: Wherever you roam, you can be found. You don't even need a GPS chip in your phone--your using cell towers allows your provider to triangulate your position within a few hundred yards.

 

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