Tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler answers your questions about making devices last longer and keeping prying eyes at bay.
It’s a confusing and often scary tech world out there.
“I have no idea what to do, so I’m asking you,” wrote Tricia F. of Richmond, recently. She said someone had been uploading private recordings of her son online to embarrass him — and she suspected his phone had been bugged.
I’m here to help. Every day I hear about the challenges you face making devices and the Internet work for you, rather than make life more difficult. Thanks to your questions, I’ve investigated the scourge of robocalls, wrangling passwords and the eavesdropping ways of smart speakers.
This week, I’m tackling two important problems: making our gadgets last longer, and keeping prying eyes out of our devices.
You can reach me with your questions, ideas and scary tech experiences via email at email@example.com, on Twitter @geoffreyfowler and via our online form.
How do I maximize the life span of my laptop battery?
“Is it better to simply leave a laptop (that mostly stays home in one place) plugged in when in use, or let it run on battery?” asks Lynne Martin from the District.
It’s true that lithium-polymer batteries have a limited number of recharge cycles and will last longer if you don’t hold them at a full charge. But leaving your laptop plugged in probably isn’t something you have to worry about.
Many laptop makers today have battery-management software, such as Lenovo’s Vantage and Dell’s Command utilities, that know to limit the maximum charge when you primarily leave it plugged in. Apple’s Mac laptops also do this — you might notice the battery sometimes seems to stop charging between 93 percent and 99 percent.
How can I hold onto my phone for a really, really long time?
“I have an iPhone SE that I like a lot,” writes A. Baker from Lewisburg, Pa. “So, my goal is to keep it for the rest of my days. Let’s say, 25 years. What should I do to reach that goal?”
I’m also a fan of making tech last as long as possible, because it’s better for budgets and for the environment. The iPhone SE debuted in 2016, and you might make one last a decade — but a quarter century would be very difficult.
I love this question because it highlights a problem in the way most companies design phones. Unlike desktop computers, they don’t usually come with modular parts that can be easily repaired or upgraded. (One of the few exceptions is called Fairphone, but it’s not widely available in the U.S.)
The biggest longevity problem with an iPhone is going to be the battery. It has a life span of just a few years — but is sealed inside the phone. Even if you know how to swap out the battery (or don’t mind paying a pro to do it), at some point it might be difficult to find fresh replacements.
Then there’s the processor. The SE is still powerful enough for most websites and apps today, but not something you can upgrade. Its limitations mean Apple in the new future will likely drop support for the SE in iOS updates, which means you’d lose important security protections.
And finally, cellular networks keep evolving — which can involve turning off services for older phones. AT&T has already shut off service for 2G networks and has announced it will end its 3G service in early 2022. There’s no word so far on how long it will support the 4G LTE network used by the iPhone SE, but it recently began rolling out 5G networks designed to someday replace 4G.
Are “protected” Microsoft Word documents secure enough for secrets?
“I have a multi-page file of banking, investment, media, and credit card accounts with logins and associated passwords,” writes Gary Marcantoni from Sterling, Va. “Is the Microsoft Word password not too swift to rely on?”
I think a secure password manager (see my recommendations here) is a more convenient way to keep track of this information — especially these days, when each site and service requires a unique password and we need access to it on phones, tablets and computers.
But yes, Microsoft Word can do a relatively good job of protecting sensitive documents with a password. The latest versions of Office offer 256-bit encryption, which would take a long time for someone to crack. (Versions before Office 2007, however, used a weaker form of encryption that you should avoid.)
A few things to keep in mind: You have to choose a good password — and make sure nobody else knows it. And you still have to make sure your computer isn’t compromised by malware such as a key logger that might read the file when you open it up. (The free version of Malwarebytes can help you check.)
The steps to encrypt a Word doc are a little different depending on your system. In Windows, go to File, Info, then Protect Document. On a Mac, click on Review, then Protect Document.
What do you do when your phone or laptop might have been bugged?
The online bullying faced by Tricia F.’s son sounds like something from a terrifying movie. “He’s been living a life akin to that represented in the movie, ‘The Truman Show,’ where one unsuspecting guy lives an ordinary life while an audience listens (and watches),” she wrote.
In these situations, it can be hard to tell what’s really going on.
Start here: Just because someone claims they’ve compromised you, doesn’t make it true. A scam sometimes called “sextortion” involves an email from a supposed hacker who demands money or else they will publish embarrassing information, usually sexual pictures or clips from your device’s camera and microphone. If you get one of these emails, the Electronic Frontier Foundation advises “do not pay the ransom.” This is true even if they show you a password you once or currently use. (Sadly, many of these are easily acquired on the dark web.)
But sometimes it is clear they really do have access to pictures, recordings or other sensitive information. What do you do then? EFF technologist Eva Galperin, who works with abuse victims, tells me first you have to figure out whether you’re facing an account compromise or a device compromise. The former is someone who has stolen your username and password to access an online service like email or the cloud — the latter is someone who has spy software installed on your device.
Account compromise is much more common. You can address it by using a password manager, changing your passwords to something different on each site, service and app, and turning on two-factor authentication everywhere possible. Keep in mind, lots of things that can be used to violate our privacy these days have accounts. For example, someone could be using your compromised account to spy on you through your own Nest security camera or Ring doorbell.
If you lock down all of your accounts and the abuse continues, your computer or phone itself might be compromised. The malware used by abusers is sometimes called “stalkerware,” “spouseware” or “creepware.” To check for it on your Android device, download and run anti-virus software from Kaspersky or Lookout. (Anti-virus apps aren’t allowed on the iPhone app store, but this kind of malware is less common — unless devices have been “jailbroken,” which means they’ve been hacked to run an unauthorized version of iOS.) On iPhones, you should also make sure the abuser hasn’t added your device to their “Find My iPhone,” which they could use to track your location.
Finally, talk to the police. Stalking and spying are illegal, and you don’t have to deal with it on your own.
Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler:
Alexa has been eavesdropping on you this whole time
Not all iPhones are the same. These cost less and are better for the Earth.
Hands off my data! 15 default privacy settings you should change right now.