No, your phone isn’t ‘listening’ to you — but it’s probably tracking you
Mozilla
True
Firefox

When I found out I was pregnant in October 2018, I had planned to keep the news a secret from family for a little while — but my phone seemed to have other ideas.

Within just a few hours of finding out the news, I was being bombarded with ads for baby gear, baby clothes and diapers on Facebook, Instagram and pretty much any other site I visited — be it my phone or on my computer.

Good thing my family wasn't looking over my shoulder while I was on my phone or my secret would have been ruined.

I'm certainly not alone in feeling like online ads can read your mind.

When I started asking around, it seemed like everyone had their own similar story: Brian Kelleher told me that when he and his wife met, they started getting ads for wedding rings and bridal shops within just a few weeks. Tech blogger Snezhina Piskov told me that she started getting ads for pocket projectors after discussing them in Messenger with her colleagues. Meanwhile Lauren Foley, a writer, told me she started getting ads for Happy Socks after seeing one of their shops when she got off the bus one day.

When online advertising seems to know us this well, it begs the question: are our phones listening to us?


Mozilla

"There is a common myth that companies like Facebook are using the microphone on your device to passively listen to all your conversations," says Marshall Erwin, Senior Director of Trust and Security at Mozilla and cybersecurity expert who worked for Congress during the Snowden disclosures in 2013. "This isn't the case."

However, your phone — just like your computer — is collecting your personal data.

It's collecting this data with cookies and other web trackers embedded in the sites you visit, with the data you provide freely when you create social media profiles, use apps or buy things online, with your location data, and with your device ID.

"Your phone is the most complete surveillance device invented by mankind," says Bruce Schneier, adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and renowned security technologist. "It knows where you live, it knows where you work, it knows when you wake up and when you go to sleep. It knows who you sleep with. It knows you better than your spouse."

"Surveillance is the business model of the internet," he adds.

For example, Schneier tells me, "the fact that we are talking is recorded somewhere and we actually don't know which of our cell phone companies is selling that data. We don't know which apps on our phone are grabbing that data and using it."

Pretty much everything we do on our computers or our phones — which, remember, are mini-computers we carry around all day — produces personal data.

Our data is often then bought, sold, and correlated against other data to create a profile of who we are. That profile is in turn targeted in a variety of ways.

For example, internet advertisers, Erwin explains, can use it "to anticipate and target ads related to what you are thinking and talking about, without actually having to listen to your conversations."

For example, a shoe manufacturer could use your data to target you simply because you're in your 30s and you seem interested in sports. But they might also target you because you googled running trails or you recently visited a running hobbyist website. Meanwhile, a politician might use it to target you because you are white and live in a battle-ground state.

It's easy to use (or misuse) your data.

Mozilla

"Data is what powers a lot of misinformation because it is easier to influence people with malicious messages if those messages are highly targeted towards susceptible groups or populations," explains Erwin.

He continues, "Our data can be misused in discriminatory advertising, where job or housing ads are targeted to only certain racial groups, in violation of people's basic rights."

Personal data can also be targeted by malicious actors, especially when the apps on our phone aren't secure. For example, the app TikTok had vulnerabilities that allowed hackers to manipulate and retrieve user personal information.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

Well, the bad news is that there's no way to fully protect your data.

"Your data isn't under your control," says Schneier, "Your email is held by Google, your photos are held by someone else, your files are on some company's hard drive and your financial purchases are held by credit card companies. Your data is not yours anymore."

"That's the baseline," he continues. "There's largely nothing you can do about it."

But you can take steps to limit the collection of your data.

1. Turn on your privacy controls.

"A lot of tech companies provide ways for people to enhance their privacy and to decrease the amount of data collected about them," explains Erwin. "These privacy settings are often off by default, however, and need users to turn them on."

2. Use a browser that turns those privacy protections by default.

Mozilla protects users' data by turning on privacy features by default in the Firefox browser.

"For example, our Enhanced Tracking Protection feature prevents third parties from tracking you and building a profile of your activity from the websites you visit," says Erwin. "And our DNS over HTTPS (DoH) feature protects that same data from people spying in the middle of the network, encrypting DNS traffic and ensuring it is only disclosed to parties with strong privacy practices."

3. Use private browsing.

Private browsing — or incognito mode — allow you to browse the web without saving your browsing history. How? They automatically clear cookies and your cache, making it a little harder to track you and target you with ads.

If you use Firefox, you can also use enhanced tracking protection, which blocks a number of trackers before they're even placed on your device in the first place.

4. Avoid public WiFi.

Public wifi networks are less secure and it's easier for your data to be hacked.

5. Use a VPN.

The Mozilla VPN is available on Windows and Android devices and it will help keep you safe online by protecting your data, IP address and location. It also encrypts your activity and communications.

6. Adjust your phone settings

Watch this video for tips on how to do that:

Data Detox: Smartphones | Firefox www.youtube.com

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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