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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

The Fix: Do the math. As more vendors move toward an "open" handset model, paying more up front can save you a bundle in the long run.

Your Webcam May Be Watching You

Two-way video chat is fun. One-way chat--where you're the one being watched--is not so much fun. But it's more common than you might think.

In February, school officials in southeastern Pennsylvania found themselves in hot water after they installed software on school laptops that allowed them to activate students' Webcams remotely. The school claimed that the software--which could snap a picture of whoever was using the MacBook at any time--was only for locating lost or stolen laptops. Outraged parents sued the district, and the story made international headlines.

Two weeks earlier, a woman reported being spied on via her Webcam by a Dell support technician, which she discovered when she realized the tech had turned on her Webcam without asking permission. Chinese cyberspy network GhostNet has reportedly taken over at least 1300 PCs worldwide, including the ability to operate their Webcams. In 2006, Spanish authorities arrested two teens after they hacked Webcams at a local college and tried to blackmail students caught in compromising situations. In 2004, an online intruder commandeered the computer of a 15-year-old girl in Houston, operating her Webcam remotely and typing messages on her screen about the clothes she was wearing.

The Fix: If you have an external Webcam, unplug it when you're not using it. If your camera is built in, covering the lens with a sticky note should do the trick.

Your Boss Can (and Probably Does) Monitor Your Computer

Paranoia, schmaranoia. If you work in a medium-size or large organization, the folks in your IT department are keeping tabs on you.

Using software like Websense Triton or Barracuda Purewire, they can monitor the sites you visit, and scan the e-mail you send or receive. They can also check network-activity logs, or use software that captures your keystrokes or periodically grabs images off your screen.

According to the most recent surveys conducted by the American Management Association, two-thirds of all employers monitor employee Web and e-mail activity. About four out of ten use keyloggers or snoop around employees' computer files. And one out of four firms has fired employees for Internet-related misdeeds.

Besides boosting productivity, companies are trying to avoid malware infestations, accidental leaks of confidential data, and liability for sexual-harassment suits if employees are exposed to Internet porn.

The problem? Selective enforcement, says Joe Rose, a labor-rights attorney based in Sacramento, California. Companies just collect the information and use it when needed to weed out troublemakers, complainers, or people who rub them the wrong way. "In my experience," Rose says, "companies use this information selectively, either to pile on evidence in case of employee misconduct or if the employee engages in activity the company doesn't like, such as labor organizing."

 

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