TOPICS > Science

Privacy in a Digital Age: When Twitter Followers Can Track a Lost Phone

August 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
When New York Times tech reporter David Pogue lost his iPhone, he turned to his 1.4 million Twitter followers for help. And the online crowd responded, tracking his phone down in just a few hours. Though the story had a happy ending, the experience revealed real questions about modern privacy. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a story about how the Web, its users and tracking technology helped recover, yes, a missing smartphone.

It sounds like a story right up Hari Sreenivasan’s alley.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When most people lose a cell phone, there’s not necessarily an online community of strangers to help track it down.

But then New York Times technology columnist David Pogue is not most people. He has quite a few Twitter followers, 1.4 million of them. So when Pogue lost his iPhone on a train this week, believing it was stolen, he posted this tweet yesterday to ask for help in finding it.

And there was quite a response. Pogue posted to Twitter a map of where the phone signaled it was at. And within minutes, a large online crowd started to stalk his phone, all based on an app that was tracking its location.

Hours later, police in Prince George’s County, Md., tweeted back, saying they had found it. There’s a lot that happened in between, much of it good news, but also some real questions about privacy in the digital age.

David Pogue is here to help lay that out. He’s also the new host of “NOVA Science Now,” and he joins us from Boston.

Thanks for being with us.

DAVID POGUE, The New York Times: My pleasure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how did it happen? You said to the world, here, guys, look for my phone, or I think it’s stolen. And then what happened in between?

DAVID POGUE: Well, the great thing was that I lost the phone on Monday, when I was on this train.

And Apple has a feature called Find My iPhone. You go to this Web site and it shows you on a map, either like a street map or a satellite photograph, of where the thing is right now. And it’s available for other phones, too, Android phones and so on.

And it’s the greatest feature if you ever lose your phone. But whoever had the phone had turned it off. And you can’t — it doesn’t work when the phone is off. So, for three days, I was in misery, thinking, oh, my gosh, this is hundreds of dollars in replacement fees.

And then Thursday morning, I got an e-mail from Find My iPhone that says, your phone has surfaced. Here it is in a suburb of Maryland.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID POGUE: So here — there I was, you know, in Connecticut, where I live and unable to go to Maryland.

So, I said, what do I have to lose? I went on Twitter, said, my phone has shown up. Can anyone help me? I thought, you know, maybe someone would say, hey, I live next door, or, oh, I work near there.

And that is pretty much what happened, except that people said, I’m not going over there. It is kind of a sketchy neighborhood. So I also called the police in the local area. And my Twitter followers also figured out the police department there.

And, suddenly, the police department was like, what? What is this? And one of the guys who heard about this was a local policeman off duty, but a fan and a Twitter follower. And he contacted one of the blogs that was following this and said, well, you know what, why don’t I drop by and have a look?

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so there it was. And it was apparently in somebody’s backyard. And you sent a little signal so that the phone would make a sound?

DAVID POGUE: So one of the great features of this Find My iPhone thing is that, if you misplace it somewhere in your house perhaps, from another phone or from your computer, you can send a ping message that makes it make a really loud noise for two minutes. It goes bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing for two minutes.

And you can also put a message on the screen, like — as I did many times, like, you have my phone. I will give you $100 if you can call me, and so on. And nobody ever responded to that.

But the policeman went through the house that was indicated on the map with me on the cell phone, saying, OK, start pinging now, I’m listening. And it was crazy. It was like some kind of NASA-FBI satellite spy operation, because he was looking in Maryland in the house where it was on the map, but he couldn’t hear the pinging.

He said for half-an-hour, he looked and he never — he never heard the pinging, even though I was frantically pinging the phone. So we all gave up. And then a half-an-hour later, he called me back. He said, guess what? We found it in the backyard in the grass.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Uh-huh.

DAVID POGUE: So…

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s where phones naturally go from Amtrak trains.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID POGUE: Well, it turns out that the homeowner who had said I don’t know anything about it did, in fact, know something about it.

So the person had been on the train and had taken my phone. And the policeman asked me, do you want to file charges? It’s paperwork. It’s delay. You might not get the phone back. It would be much easier if I just say to him, turn over the phone and we won’t press charges. So that is what happened.

So, he said, OK, it’s in the backyard. And the phone is now sitting at my house in Connecticut, waiting for me to come home.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. That all said, is there not a little bit of a creep factor here, the fact that it’s great that you were able to find your phone, but, technically, a cell phone provider has access to that data, possibly somebody with a subpoena that goes to the cell phone provider has access to that data?

DAVID POGUE: I don’t think there is a creep factor, because, number one, Find My iPhone is optional. I have to turn it on in several places, you know, on my phone and online and in the settings.

So it is only there if you really want it there. Second of all, nobody can use Find My iPhone without your Find My iPhone password that you have made up. So it is exclusively for the use of the owner of the phone, like me.

So the only situation that somebody’s privacy would be invaded is if they are a thief and they took your phone, like this guy. So I’m not so worried about his privacy. He stole the phone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

And what about the idea that perhaps there’s other apps that are not as forward with your information — I should say not as honest with your information and perhaps put location-sensing into their technology?

DAVID POGUE: Well, sure.

But I have to say, if that is what you are worried about, then you have much bigger worries. Verizon could be listening to every phone call you make. Your grocery store could be looking over your purchases right now. Visa could be laughing their heads off at what you bought this month.

There could be conspiracies and privacy invasions all around us. So, yes, if you believe that somebody is secretly putting spy apps on your phone and monitoring where you go, that ship has left a long time ago. The cell phone companies do know where you are at all time. They have triangulation at any time. So, if you don’t want cell phones not to have the potential of knowing where you are, don’t own a cell phone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID POGUE: My pleasure. Thank you.