You’re just playing around on your iPhone when you notice it: a strange feature you swear you haven’t seen before. Right in the corner of the screen, alongside the battery symbol, there’s a bright orange dot. And while this actually isn’t a sign of anything really bad, you should still be cautious. In fact, when that dot crops up, you may want to be very careful what you say.
You’d be forgiven if you’ve missed the dot, though, as it’s only recently started to appear on iPhones. It all ties into a software update – the much-vaunted iOS 14 – that dropped in September 2020. Next time you’re on your device, then, take a look at the right-hand side of the screen to see if you can spot the unusual new feature.
Once you’ve upgraded to iOS 14, you may clock a few other differences, too. Your home screen will have received a revamp, along with the phone’s widget gallery. Not too bad, right? Normally it’s pretty impossible to tell what’s changed after the Apple updates! But these aren’t the only modifications that iPhone owners have noticed.
That brings us back to the mysterious orange dot. Why do we only see it from time to time, and what’s its purpose? Well, this mark is intriguing and distracting in equal measure, but we can assure you that it exists for a reason. Basically, it’s all to do with your phone’s privacy settings – which makes it important for you to know about.
And updates keep iPhones new and interesting for us all. But let’s face it: we’re not likely to get rid of these wonders of technology any time soon. They make life easier, as do devices such as the Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. Quite frankly, we’re spoiled for choice! Still, not everyone’s a fan of these modern advancements.
Why’s that? Well, some folks believe that their devices may be listening to their every word. That’s a scary notion, but does it actually happen? Let’s use the Amazon Echo’s Alexa feature as an example. When we want to get Alexa’s attention, we must say its name out loud. This is referred to as the “wake word.”
Then it gets interesting. According to a 2019 article by Forbes, Amazon Echo devices are run by cloud computing. This means any of your orders to Alexa travel to a remote server, where they’re immediately translated. After that, the information you wanted is fired back to the speakers, and Alexa responds in its inimitable style. But there’s a teeny tiny problem.
You see, being connected to the cloud all the time means that the Echo has constantly got its ears open – or its virtual ears, anyway. And this explains why your Alexa speaks up sometimes without being prompted. That creepy surprise shouldn’t happen too often, as an Echo will likely experience no more than three of these “false alarms” per day. Even so, that’s probably three too many for some!
But if the Echo’s always picking up on what you say, what happens to the information? Well, Forbes claims that Amazon employs workers to break down these words in an attempt to boost “customer experience.” The drawback? It’s not exactly an anonymous service – meaning any dialog that comes through will still be connected to your name.
To shed a bit more light on the process, Joseph Dureau gave his expert view to Forbes. He was once the CTO at tech firm Snips, which has produced what’s known as “an artificial intelligence voice platform.” And this means Dureau knows what he’s talking about – so does he have good news or bad for us all?
Well, to start with, there was bad news for those folks who don’t want their Echo conversations to be heard by strangers. Dureau said, “Amazon Alexa is a cloud-based voice assistant. So, once the wake word is triggered – whether the user actually invoked it or not – the audio starts to be streamed to the cloud for Alexa speech recognition and natural language understanding to happen.” Still, Dureau emphasized, “There are thankfully alternatives to this model.”
The tech whiz gave Snips as an example, saying, “Snips runs speech recognition and natural language understanding on the device itself, which means that no voice data ever leaves the device. This ensures that no private conversations are sent to the cloud – even in the case of wake-word false positives.” Dureau even poured cold water on one of Amazon’s claims.
Remember what we said about the “customer experience” boost? Well, Dureau explained that interpreting our secret conversations isn’t actually as useful as Amazon makes it out to be. He added, “Performance is in fact only minimally improved with the collection of more data past a certain point. The volumes of data required to reach state-of-the-art performance levels can be crowdsourced in a few hours.”
On the flip side, Amazon says that you can essentially plug your Echo’s “ears” by just switching off the voice recordings option in settings. This should prevent the cloud from using your words to help “product development.” And if you’re worried that your chats with loved ones may be heard by others, it’s certainly worth a shot.
But once that’s done and dusted, you may also want to take a look at advertising cookies. See those ads that pop up on websites after you’ve indulged in a spot of online shopping – the ones that tempt you into that next purchase? Well, that’s one side of it, but apparently there’s an even scarier way of ensuring you see relevant products on the web.
Take it from Miranda Knox, who claimed that her phone was listening to private conversations. The reporter, who works for U.K. newspaper The Sun, went on to put her supposition to the test in a simple study before sharing the results with the public. And you may want to sit down for this next part.
Knox explained that she had picked out a bunch of subjects. These included vegan food, Spandex and business cards – not the kind of things she’d ever asked Google about before. She then started chatting about her chosen topics whenever she thought her phone would “overhear” them. She also had the phone’s mic on in every app and continued to use social media as normal.
And it didn’t take long for Knox’s experiment to have an effect. In just a few days, a deluge of ads connected with the subjects that she’d been talking about swamped her. But how was that possible? Was her cell phone really picking up on passing statements? No one likes an eavesdropper, but this would take the biscuit!
Eventually, Knox turned to Edward Whittingham. Whittingham started up a company named The Defence Works which focuses on online security – meaning it was a subject he knew a bit about. And during his talk with Knox, the tech expert gave his truthful opinion on the journalist’s theory. You’re still sitting down, right?
Whittingham told The Sun, “I’m not surprised that people are receiving targeted ads based on their conversations. It’s happened to me, too. There’s no question as to whether or not our phones can listen to us, but the million-dollar question is: are they? The answer – we don’t know.”
The security guru continued, “Only a few weeks ago, I was talking to my wife about the parking on our road. When I accessed Facebook the following morning, I saw an advertisement to rent car spaces out in the local area – including the exact name of the town in which I live.” And he added, “Imagine how much more valuable advertising is to a company selling a product when they know, with a fair amount of accuracy, that you’re actively interested in that product?”
Whittingham concluded, “There lies the incentive and motivation for listening to our conversations.” But as the man admitted himself, there’s no physical proof that this is actually happening – beyond the ads, of course. And in the past, Apple has made it clear that it doesn’t pass on your words to advertising companies.
Facebook has taken a similar stance and even replied to Knox’s query on the subject to say so. According to the journalist, the social media giant reaffirmed its previous statements before saying that her story “wasn’t newsworthy.” Ouch! Whether you believe what Facebook says or not, though, speculation is sure to continue if the personalized ads keep cropping up online.
And, funnily enough, that brings us back to the mysterious orange dot on your iPhone. Is it connected to what we’ve just discussed? Well, yes, it is! You see, the dot acts as a signal to grab your attention. When it pops up, that means the device’s microphone is being used.
Usually, the orange dot will appear on your iPhone when you call a contact or make a voice recording. After all, both of those tasks require the use of the microphone. And if you only spot the dot on those occasions, you don’t need to worry so much. Phew! From time to time, though, it could crop up while you’re merely browsing the internet.
If this happens, then it’s a sign that one of the apps on your phone has accessed the microphone. And if that’s the case, your everyday conversations could be getting recorded. Pretty creepy, right? So, thank goodness for the orange dot! It doesn’t just warn you about potential eavesdroppers, either.
By accessing the Control Center of your iPhone, you’ll be able to identify which of your apps is the guilty party. It’s like catching someone’s hand in a virtual cookie jar. But, sadly, the notification doesn’t go much further than that, and so you won’t be able to get much detail on what’s going on with your phone.
That’s because the orange dot doesn’t let you know what’s happening with the app. All it does is tell you that an app is putting the microphone into action for some purpose. It doesn’t inform you whether any words or messages are being sent to the cloud or to a server back at base, or whether a recording is simply kept on your phone.
Regardless, you probably don’t want apps to be meddling with your iPhone, right? So how can you deal with them? Well, one of the solutions is to simply bin the guilty application. If you’re a bit more forgiving, on the other hand, there is something else that you could do.
By opening up your settings, you should be able to access the iPhone’s privacy section. From there, head over to the microphone options. That area will then showcase a list of apps that can use the tool. You may be shocked by how many are there! In any case, you can go on to select which application to block off.
Then once the switch next to the application’s name turns gray, you can finally relax. It’s a simple enough process and proves how valuable the orange dot may turn out to be. Who’s to say that the apps haven’t been listening in on your conversations for months or years before now? At least that’s off the table!
Apple really pushed this new security measure, too, when discussing iOS 14 on its website. The tech giant explained the purpose of the update, saying, “Privacy is a fundamental human right and at the core of everything we do. That’s why with iOS 14, we’re giving you more control over the data you share and more transparency into how it’s used.”
But as that statement suggests, Apple has done more to keep your information safe than just provide the orange dot. And if you keep your eyes peeled when you’re using your iPhone, you may just spot a different – but strangely familiar – feature near the top of the screen.
That’s because iOS 14 has ushered in a green dot as well. And much like its orange counterpart, this also acts as an alert – albeit for another aspect of the iPhone. In those instances, it’s all to do with the use of the camera. Surely apps can’t access that too?
Well, we hate to break it to you. Unless you’re using an app such as FaceTime or recording a video yourself, the green dot signals that a rogue application has gotten to your camera. But before you hurriedly turn your phone upside down, the problem can be solved. Just follow the same steps as earlier.
When you open up the privacy settings, you obviously need to head over to the camera options. After that, simply select the apps that you want to bar from camera access. It beats sticking an object in front of the lens, in any case… But that’s not quite all. You see, there’s one more helpful security measure from the iOS update that you really should know about.
Although there weren’t any other hidden symbols to speak of in the upgrade, the new location privacy option is a huge plus. Apps no longer need to have permission to access your precise position, as you can now switch that option off in the settings. Does that mean that apps will have no idea where you are?
Well, sort of. Any app will only be able to know roughly where you are. And that could be a massive improvement if you’re particularly security-conscious, as it lessens the chance of an app finding your home address. We’re sure that Edward Whittingham would’ve appreciated that when the parking adverts popped up on his Facebook page!
But what if you don’t have an iPhone? Can you protect yourself in the same way? Well, according to Whittingham, similar steps can be taken to maximize your cell phone’s security regardless of its model. He told The Sun, “A good starting point would be to review the permissions you have on your mobile devices.”
“Check what permissions each of the apps on your device has,” Whittingham added. “You might be surprised at just how many have requested access to your microphone, camera or even phone contacts when there’s no obvious or tangible reason as to why they’d need it.” So just switch them off. It’ll be one less thing to worry about!
Sadly, though, mobile phones aren’t the only seemingly innocuous objects that can threaten your privacy. Take the hooks found in public restrooms, for example. While you might not even register their presence a lot of the time, they can actually conceal some truly stomach-churning secrets. So, if you ever notice a suspicious-looking hook in person, you’ll want to get out of there as quickly as possible – then immediately alert the authorities.
Now, you may think that such a warning is exaggerated nonsense, as the presence of a hook in a stall doesn’t inherently suggest anything unusual is going on. Indeed, for years now, these holders have simply provided a way for patrons to easily hang up their coats and bags as they go about their business. Nowadays, though, these apparently harmless items may signal something sinister – and it’s very difficult to make sure at first glance.
Yes, the troubling hooks in question essentially look identical to those you’d find anywhere else. This makes them particularly hard to spot – although they’ve nevertheless turned up in three different women’s restrooms across the Florida Keys. And as a result of this worrying phenomenon, authorities are urging people both to be vigilant and immediately report any instances of these potentially dangerous items.
Still, because there’s nothing noticeably untoward about the hooks, you’d probably never know that someone was using them to commit a crime. And, of course, this isn’t the first instance of wrongdoers preying on unsuspecting folks in what should be private or discreet settings. In fact, it’s just the latest means by which crooks have taken advantage of their unknowing victims.
For example, ATMs have proven to be a real hotspot for hidden crime. And while many machines warn users to shield their Personal Identification Number (PIN), even this may not be enough to deter savvy thieves, as the methods they’ve employed to steal users’ data have become increasingly nefarious in recent years.
One such technique involves using a counterfeit card reader that can harvest information from a card simply by reading its magnetic stripe. It’s also worth looking out for nearby hidden cameras, which may be planted inside ostensibly harmless objects. These are often easier to spot, as there should be no clutter around the machine – meaning even something as simple as a leaflet holder in the vicinity should raise alarm bells.
If you do see anything suspicious at an ATM, then, you can either contact the bank directly or dial the telephone number typically featured on the machine. And it pays to be cautious, as those hidden cameras could easily record not only your PIN, but also your card info. These details can then be used by felons to clone your bank card.
That’s not all you need to look out for at an ATM, either. Before you use a machine, inspect the slot that dispenses receipts. And if there are any fractures or signs of foul play around that opening, you should back away quickly. The slightest indication that anything has been taken out or reconstructed is a major red flag, as it suggests that someone may have inserted a card scanner there.
Alarmingly, almost every element of an ATM is open to tampering; for instance, fake keypads can be used to record and transmit your PIN in real time. And even if you do eventually realize something strange when trying to withdraw cash, it could well be too late. So, to avoid falling victim to such a ploy, keep an eye out for keypads that feel strangely spongy or simply looser than normal.
Phony card slots are often used by criminals to collect cards, too. A slot jutting out from the machine rather than sitting neatly against it could be a telltale sign that it’s fake. And if your card is swallowed up as a consequence of being put in a tampered ATM, you should get in touch with the bank at once – and remain at your location if at all possible.
Hijacking an ATM isn’t the only means by which fraudsters can get their hands on your personal details, though. Yes, there are plenty of other ways for unscrupulous folks to skim your info – particularly if your card leaves your sight. For example, if you give your card to a waiter, they may be able to lift your data with a gadget designed for the task at hand – and without you ever noticing.
In stealing your data, a crafty counterfeiter will be hoping to create a cloned version of your card with an identical magnetic strip. And with both this and your PIN, the thief will then have everything they need to access your cash. But while this type of fraud is certainly a problem for consumers, fortunately the number of instances of such crimes is beginning to slow down in the U.S.
Between September 2015 and March 2018, money lost through the use of cloned cards fell by 46 percent across every merchant in the country, according to Visa. And for U.S. retailers who use chip-enabled payments specifically designed to counter cloned cards, there was a whopping 75 percent drop. Those numbers could change, however, as contactless technology becomes ever more prevalent in the States.
Contactless payments reportedly account for over 90 percent of point-of-sale transactions in Australia and more than half of the same in Canada and the United Kingdom. At present, though, the tap-and-go system is only just beginning to take off in America. As of 2019, a mere 0.18 percent of in-person purchases were made using a contactless card.
But the landscape is beginning to change, with many sellers now set up to accept contactless cards and systems such as Google Pay and Apple Pay. As a consequence, banks are beginning to send out more cards with contactless payment capabilities. All that’s left, then, is for American consumers to embrace this new method.
When the U.S. public start to use the technology en masse, though, they may find that they’re opening themselves up to a completely new means of fraud. You see, thieves can reportedly swipe data from your contactless card without it ever leaving your pocket. Cheap card-reading devices can allegedly lift information and even cash simply by being in close proximity.
And while such crimes aren’t a huge problem in countries where contactless technology is more widespread, it is a growing concern. For instance, in the U.K., contactless cases accounted for around three percent of card-related fraud as of early 2019. In 2018 that amounted to 2,740 separate incidents, with financial losses totaling almost $2.25 million. One particularly eye-watering example saw nearly $500,000 being stolen.
Despite those alarming figures, though, every one of those cases involved the thief swiping their victim’s card. And although the technology needed to lift data remotely supposedly exists, its use has seemingly never been verified. After all, in order to receive money from your card in passing, a thief would need a business account and a registered means of accepting payments – and both of these are very easy to trace.
So, it’s little wonder that most contactless fraud involves the more traditional methods of stealing either a card or its data. You may never know that this has happened, either, meaning it’s a good idea to periodically check your accounts for any out-of-the-ordinary activity.
And while you’ll generally be compensated by your bank if you do find yourself the victim of card fraud, unfortunately you’re not as well-protected when it comes to the mysterious hooks that have been appearing in women’s restrooms. That’s because these innocent items actually contain hidden cameras that allow their owner to spy on you in the bathroom – and you’ll never know about it.
Even worse, there’s no obvious giveaway that these hooks are any different to regular ones in stalls. This is apparently an intentional design trait, as the objects in question are more typically marketed to help improve home security. Now, though, conniving criminals have now found an alternative use for them.
Alarmingly, absolutely anybody can simply order the hooks online. They’re not expensive, either, coming in at Amazon for as little as $19.99. So, there’s no real financial or practical barrier to acquiring these potentially invasive implements. And that means anyone could feasibly install one in a public restroom.
The hooks in question have tiny, almost indistinguishable holes at the top that, at first glance, may appear to be simply part of the design. Shockingly, though, these features actually host tiny cameras. And the items can essentially be mounted anywhere – inside vents or even among other existing coat hooks as well as in restroom stalls.
In 2016 private investigator Carrie Kerskie told NBC affiliate WBBH, “Nowadays, with the advances in technology, all you need to do is insert a MicroSD card. The battery life for these coat hooks, I looked it up, is two hours. Then, you just take it out, pop it in the computer, and you have all your images. It’s real simple and easy. [Criminals] just walk in, hang [the hook] up, walk out, go back a few hours later and take it off.”
Local police have therefore advised business owners to be vigilant. “Anyone who has a public restroom on their property needs to check [it] closely,” Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said in 2016. “If you find anything suspicious [that] you think might contain a hidden camera, don’t touch it. Call us right away, and we will respond. Keep in mind, though, that these are very small cameras that can be mounted in many locations and hidden in many seemingly everyday items.”
But according to Kerskie, you can protect yourself from these invasive hooks using gadgets such as the Spy Finder. This tool works by using a ray that highlights hidden cameras with a red dot. “If it’s a camera, that red dot is going to stay in the same place,” the private investigator told WBBH. “The size of a camera lens can be the [size] of a period at the end of a sentence. That’s how small they make them these days.”
While such devices do exist, though, they’re not cheap. At the moment, the Spy Finder is selling for almost $250 plus shipping on Amazon. That’s incredibly expensive when compared to the small price of the hooks. But if you’re worried about the prevalence of hidden cameras, it could still be a worthwhile investment.
Indeed, Kerskie particularly advocates taking the plunge if you’re part of the demographic targeted by these hidden cameras. “I do recommend it if you’re a woman and you’re living alone or even a girl in college dorms,” she said. “They have been found in those places.” She also advised business owners to do their own due diligence.
“If you own an establishment with a dressing room or public restrooms, it’s a good idea to go in there periodically and check yourself,” Kerskie told WBBH. “That way, you’re not the one who is on the six o’clock news saying [that] there was a camera found in your establishment.”
Not everything marketed for camera-detecting purposes is useful, though. Yes, while there are apps that claim to be able to detect hidden cameras, they can be unreliable – even, as Kerskie claims, giving false positives. That’s because the technology often works using radio frequency signals, and it can therefore mistakenly identify anything else on the same frequency – another wireless item, for example, or a Wi-Fi signal – as a hidden camera.
It’s also worth remembering that hooks aren’t the only means by which people can install hidden cameras in public places. These devices come in all shapes and sizes, after all, with some being as small as a quarter. The magnetic Ehomful mini spy camera, for example, packs both night vision and motion detection into a tiny one-inch gadget.
The Ehomful camera’s night vision allows it to clearly film subjects as far as 20 feet away. Its motion detector, meanwhile, alerts the camera’s owner to people in its vicinity along with transmitting live photos and videos. And because the camera can be linked to a Wi-Fi network, a criminal only needs an internet connection to access any footage that it has recorded.
But the Ehomful is not the only hidden camera with remote access. The same functionality is offered by the JMP Power wireless camera, which is masked inside a digital clock. Another company’s device bundles the same features, including motion detection and night vision, into a security camera that’s also waterproof. And, worryingly, such technology is cheap to procure, too.
Yes, while these kinds of tiny cameras may once have been the preserve of science fiction, industrial innovation has made them accessible by anyone. In January 2020 video security expert Randy Andrews told Forbes, “The technology has gotten much, much smaller. We’re talking about a micro camera lens the size of a pinhead.”
Consequently, it’s probably unsurprising to hear that hidden cameras aren’t only found in hooks in public restrooms. For instance, in December 2019 a man was apprehended in San Jose for allegedly installing a pair of recorders in a Starbucks bathroom. Shawn Evans was reportedly discovered outside the building, and he apparently had evidence that tied him to the concealed apparatus.
Around 18 months beforehand, another camera was uncovered at a Starbucks restroom in Alpharetta, Georgia. This incident came just one month after a device was discovered attached to a baby changing station in the very same coffee shop. The hidden camera, which was pointed directly at a toilet, had recorded roughly an hour of footage before being found.
At the time, a police spokesperson shared advice on how customers could protect themselves from such intrusion. “Always be aware of your surroundings,” Officer Howard Miller told FOX 5 DC in 2018. “If you’re in a restroom that’s not yours, be sure you look around and check hidden areas that aren’t very visible. Unfortunately, this seems to be happening more often than you would think.”
And as hidden cameras become easier to purchase, they’re appearing in more and more places. In 2019 alone, unwitting victims turned up spycams in public accommodation from Sydney to San Francisco. An entire syndicate was also found to be recording and even live-streaming more than 1,600 motel lodgers in South Korea.
So, if you’re worried about hidden cameras but don’t have access to a device that can detect them, there are thankfully still steps you can take to help ensure your privacy. It’s worth keeping an eye out for strange items in a room, for example. Removing any battery backing or searching for the make and model of an object on the internet should reveal whether it’s concealing a camera.
And according to Michigan State Police detective Kenneth Weismiller, the most important thing you can do is be aware of your surroundings. “Remain vigilant and act on those instincts,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2019. “If those hairs on the back of your neck are sticking up and something doesn’t seem right, check it out.”