Worried about PC repair technicians snooping your data and photos? You should be, study finds


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A study by Canadian computer scientists found that electronics repair shop technicians often secretly view and sometimes copy customers’ private data.

While many PC and smartphone owners worry about how vulnerable their data is when they hand in a device for repair, this research aims to find out how common snooping is among repair service providers, large and small.

As seen by Ars Technica, researchers from the School of Computer Science, University of Guelph, Canada report their findings in a new paper, which suggests that it is quite common for repair technicians to snoop on customers’ private data.

The researchers also found that most electronics repair service providers do not have privacy policies or protocols in place to protect customers from technicians snooping on their device data, and by default ask for OS credentials when they are not needed for repairs.

To do so, the researchers left six newly purchased Windows 10 laptops for repair, with the audio drive disabled to create the impression there was a problem that needed to be fixed. Then, after the devices were fixed and returned, the researchers analyzed device logs to check for any privacy violations that might have occurred while they were in for repairs.

They took six laptops to 16 small, regional and national repair service providers between October and December 2021. They recruited three male and three female users to drop off devices for repair.

The researchers found that technicians at six of the 16 providers viewed customer data, while technicians at two providers copied data to external devices.

Of the six locations where espionage occurred, three removed evidence, while one was done to avoid creating evidence.

The researchers chose to fix the audio issue because of its ease of repair and it does not require access to user files to repair it – unlike removing malware. Investigators found a technician at a national provider had accessed revealing images of female users. In regional service providers, there were privacy violations against male and female users where documents, pictures and revealing photos were accessed. A male user’s browser history was viewed by the technician, and the exposed images were zipped and transferred to an external storage device.

For local service providers, they found that a technician accessed a male user’s browser history, while a technician in this group accessed a female user’s documents, photos, and revealing photos, as well as copies of files containing passwords and revealing photos on the outside. equipment.

Additionally, technicians at three service providers cleared items in Windows’ “Quick Access” list or “Recently Accessed Files.” In another example, the technician zoomed in on the thumbnails so they didn’t leave a trace of the file being accessed.

The electronics repair industry offers economic and environmental benefits, Khan and fellow researchers write in the paper. “However, there is a strong need to measure current privacy practices in the industry, understand customers’ perspectives, and build effective controls that protect customers’ privacy.”


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