The machines are watching ...

Many “smart” devices are versions of familiar, even friendly, consumer products: thermostats, refrigerators, light switches, televisions and door locks. But the new versions connect to the Internet and can be controlled through an app on a phone, tablet or computer, notes Consumer Reports.

But that convenience comes with a trade-off: The devices, known collectively as the Internet of Things, also can send a steady flood of personal data to corporate servers, where it’s saved and shared, and can be used in ways you can’t control. Websites and smartphone apps have been following our activities for a long time, tracking where we go; what we read, watch and buy; what we write in our emails; and who we follow on Facebook and Twitter. But now connected devices gather data from some of the most-private spaces of our lives – the bedside table, the kitchen counter, the baby’s nursery.

Without proper safeguards, all of the data that different devices and sites have collected about you can be combined, then exploited by marketers or stolen by hackers.


If you don’t like the idea of being tracked by your devices, you may think you have only two options: Avoid the technology altogether or simply surrender to the surveillance. But for most smart products, Consumer Reports says, there are strategies that can at least restrict how much of your information gets collected.

1. Password-protect anything that collects personal information. Many smart devices are managed through Internet-based accounts. Some have pass codes you can enter on the device as well. Use both. And yes, you do need to pick unique and complex passwords. Consumer Reports suggests at least nine characters in a combination of letters, numbers and symbols (see its video on creating better passwords at Also, if you haven’t already done so, make sure to password-protect the settings on your router as well as its Wi-Fi connection.

2. Read the privacy policy. True, they’re often long and indecipherable. But if you want an indication of the kinds of information your device is tracking, that’s where you’ll find it. Bring your legal-to-English dictionary. Remember, however, manufacturers can change their policies at any time. And in case of a data breach, all bets are off. Hackers don’t read those policies, either.

3. Find the “off” toggle in the settings menu on your smart device. Often, features that track you are given a line-item on-off toggle. On smart TVs, for example, you can switch off voice control and “interactive” functionality. If anything seems suspicious to you, turn it off – you can always turn it back on later if it disables a function you need.

4. Don’t leave connected devices on when you’re not using them. Certain Internet-enabled devices are hooked to the Internet 24/7 by necessity (a smart thermostat, for example), but a connected baby monitor doesn’t need to be streaming video from junior’s crib when your baby is in your arms. Just turn it off.

5. Install security updates. Device makers need to get serious about automatically pushing out security updates. But consumers would be wise to periodically check the manufacturer’s website to see whether their device has a patch, an update or new firmware. If there is, install it quickly.

6. Take it offline. If Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity in a product doesn’t offer a tangible benefit to you, buy the nonconnected version. If a nonconnected version isn’t available, you can still buy the smart product – just don’t set it up on your Wi-Fi network. It may sound obvious, but it’s worth stating: If a device isn’t connected to the Internet, there’s no snooping and no hacking.

2015 Consumers Union Inc.

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