Hey Alexa, Stop Spying on Me! 5 Places Where Your Info Lives Forever

A man reads in a room with an Amazon Alexa digital assistant
Aileen Perilla/The Penny Hoarder

It’s 2018 and guess what? Unscrupulous bad guys are itching to get their hands on your personal information. Your Social Security number, bank account numbers, passwords and even the places you go are useful to them — and you’re probably leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs they’re eager to gobble up.

I know, I know. You’ve heard it all. You do everything you can to protect your phone. You don’t log on to public wireless networks. You even shred most of your mail.

But there are a few culprits you may not have thought about.

1. Google Knows… a Lot

Let’s face it: Google probably knows you better than you know you. Google has the ability to track your searches, your location, which videos you’ve watched on YouTube and any email you’ve ever sent via Gmail.

That’s a lot of dirt. I mean, how can anyone justify watching that many cat videos?

That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can do something about it. Google is pretty upfront about its desire to see your information and use it to personalize its services.

You can even download a file that shows all of the dirt… I mean, info… Google has on you. I did and realized that it has a log of my name, address, former address and even my wife’s info. Yikes. Plus all of my emails, YouTube videos and Google searches.

Luckily, Google also lets you adjust your privacy settings to limit what it can track. You might want to do that.

2. Public Libraries Are Great, but Be Careful

A woman and books on a shelf in a library
Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Here at The Penny Hoarder, we’re big fans of public libraries. They’re great resources for communities and loaded with free stuff.

Don’t have access to the internet at home? Out on the road and need to do a little research? Local libraries can hook you up. However, using that public library computer comes with a few inherent risks. If you’re not careful, you can leave your passwords and other personal information behind for anyone who follows you.

Want to use the library computer safely? Follow these tips:

Be aware of your surroundings. You don’t want a creeper looking over your shoulder to steal your info.

If you can help it, don’t use a public computer to handle banking transactions. If you must check out your accounts, use a private browsing method like Chrome’s Incognito window or Microsoft Edge’s InPrivate window. These allow you to do your business without any of your information or browsing history saving to the computer.

The same goes for making purchases on Amazon or any other online retailer. Use private browsing to protect your info.

If the computer browser asks if you’d like it to save your login information and passwords on any site, say no. That’s making it too easy for the bad guys.

Once you’ve finished, clear the browser history and delete cookies before leaving.

If you had to log in to your bank accounts, email or even social media, consider changing your passwords after you leave. It’s a good way to cover your tracks, just in case you left some information behind.

3. Hey Alexa, Don’t Remember That!

An Amazon Alexa digital assistant on a desk
Aileen Perilla/The Penny Hoarder

If you have a personal assistant device in your home, such as Amazon’s Echo or Google Assistant, you may wonder how you ever lived without it.

Want to hear your rainy day playlist? Just say, “Hey, Alexa, play my rainy day playlist.” Not sure about that snack in your hand? “OK, Google, how many calories are in a piece of avocado toast?”

According to Scientific American, Alexa knows you better than you think. Data gathered during the past holiday season gives a glimpse into American life. Alexa knows the most requested drink recipes (martinis and Manhattans). Most requested song? “Jingle Bells.” And who do we ask Alexa to call the most? We’ll call this one a win, with “Mom” taking the top spot.

Last December, Amazon was subpoenaed in a possible murder case in Arkansas. The victim was drinking it up with his buddies and turned up dead in the morning. Prosecutors wondered if his Echo device heard anything they could use to learn more. (Charges were later dropped.)

You may or may not care if your home assistant device is gathering information on you and your family’s habits, but if you do, there are a few things you can do to limit the device’s ability. Just be aware that those same settings may limit the usefulness of the device.

4. Your Work Computer Has Secrets

If you’re like most people, your work computer is your best computer. I know my PC here at The Penny Hoarder is a lot faster and more reliable than any of the machines in my home. The internet connection is way better, too.

You may also have more private time on your work computer. No kids or spouse wrangling for your attention. It’s just you, your cubicle and the World Wide Web. (Remember when we called it that?) Never mind the actual work you’re supposed to be doing.

Essentially, think of your work computer just like that library’s public computer, but with one essential difference: At the library, someone may be able to see everything you’re doing online; at work, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone does. It’s your IT department guru.

Like it or not, you probably signed a waiver that gives your company the right to monitor anything going on while you’re using that computer. Yes, anything. Your Google searches, your emails, chats, even that embarrassing Spotify playlist you’re Mmm-Boppin’ to.

That said, unless you’re stirring up trouble, they probably don’t care. But just to be safe, here are some basic “don’ts” for your work computer:

Don’t look at porn. Come on. You’re better than this. There’s no safe way to do this without getting caught, and you could mess up the whole system if you bring in a virus.

Don’t keep a lot of personal files on your computer. It’s 2018. You can store your stuff on the cloud and get it when needed. But when you open it at work, it’s still vulnerable.

Don’t talk smack about your co-workers through email or chats. Seriously, it’s gonna leak.

Don’t look for a better job. Your IT department may have flags for Monster, Indeed and similar job-hunting sites. If you want a better job, great. Just don’t try to find it while you’re supposed to be doing your current one. You’ll put your job at risk, and seriously, would you hire a person who does that?

While we’re at it, don’t bust it for your side hustle while you’re getting paid at your main hustle. No boss wants to pay you to work for another company… that’s also paying you.

Don’t handle your banking. Any of your private accounts and passwords could be exposed to your IT department. If you choose to trust that, fine. You just need to understand the risk you’re taking.

5. Makin’ Copies!

This one might be the biggest shocker of the bunch. Did you know that many of the large industrial copy machines used in offices have a hard drive that saves a file for every single document or image that is printed, scanned or faxed through it?

Every. Single. Document.

Some of you are probably thinking back to that office holiday party when the wine was flowing like, well, wine and you had a brilliant idea to jump up on the copier.

Surprise! Your butt image lives on. Forever.

In all honesty, most of the businesses that use these machines don’t ever make use of the files on that drive or even know it exists. That, however, is part of the problem.

Way back in January 2010, CBS dug into it. A correspondent bought used copy machines from two police departments, a health insurance company and a construction company.

What did they find? Warrants, police records, construction designs and addresses, health records, Social Security numbers and a lot more. The machines were not wiped clean before they were sold on the open market.

What can you possibly do about this? Probably not much. However, it could pay to be cautious with your personal information, even in a professional setting.

Don’t give out your Social Security number or your children’s Social Security numbers unless absolutely necessary. Many places that ask for it really have no need for it.

Be cautious about what documents you copy, print or send through a public copier like those at your public library or local Office Depot.

If you really want to be proactive, ask your doctor, lawyer, banker and other business associates if they’re aware that printers have hard drives. They may want to clean them before they get rid of the machine, for your sake and any other clients they have.

Besides, it may have been the boss’s butt up there on the scanner during that last holiday party.

Tyler Omoth is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder who loves soaking up the sun and finding creative ways to help others. Catch him on Twitter at @Tyomoth.