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What data your smartphone is transmitting — and to whom

Our relationship with technology is more integrated into our daily lives than ever. In 2010, just over a third of American adults owned a smartphone; now the figure is more than 80 percent. But our comfort with technology -- and the private data it collects and shares -- may be changing. William Brangham talks to Charlie Warzel of the New York Times about its new series on digital tracking.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the decade draws to a close, humans' relationship with technology is more dependent and more interwoven into our daily lives than ever. But our comfort with that technology and the private data it collects and shares about our lives may be changing.

    That's especially true with smartphones, even as their growth has soared. Just over a third of American adults owned one in 2010. Now more than 80 percent do.

    William Brangham is back with a look at a new investigative series about how far that data can be tracked and to what end.

  • William Brangham:

    Your smartphone is probably sending your precise location to companies right now. That's the first sentence in one of a series of investigative stories by The New York Times that reveals just how often our phones track our whereabouts and how many largely unknown companies capture all that data.

    Here's just one of the remarkable examples in the series. One data set of 12 million cell phones across several major cities was leaked to The New York Times. These are all the smartphone hits around Central Park in New York City.

    That one dot there is just one phone, and here are all the places that phone went within a certain period of time. Stitch those locations together, and you reveal a map of a person's daily life.

    The Times series is called "One Nation Tracked," and it examines the serious implications for personal privacy, for free speech and for national security.

    Charlie Warzel is one of the reporters on this series, and he joins me now.

    This was such a revelatory piece of reporting. I think all of us know on some level that our privacy has been given up, but to see it in this kind of granular detail was pretty amazing.

    And I do think, on some level, people assume that their phones, when they're using something like a Google Maps or something like that, that it does follow where they go. But you're reporting that there are so many other ways that our phones can track us.

  • Charlie Warzel:

    That's exactly right.

    There are certain services that collect location data that you consent to every day, and you're very aware of exactly what's happening and why it's happening.

    Turn-by-turn directions, for example, you obviously need that GPS data, you need to share that location, and you're getting a service that's very helpful and handy in return.

    But there are plenty of apps out there that collect this data for purposes where it's not quite clear you necessarily need them, and then they have secondary businesses that aren't fully disclosed. They may be buried in those long terms of service agreements.

    But it's not exactly clear to the user. And, there, they have the secondary business of selling this location data to other third parties, so then repackage and sell it. And once that information is gone, it's gone for good. You can't get it back.

    And those companies, these middlemen, so to speak, of location data, they can be, you know, big, trusted companies, or very small start-ups with security that we don't know and employees who, you know, it's not clear if they have the right permission structure or not to view your information.

  • William Brangham:

    And are there rules that govern this kind of monitoring?

    I mean, I think it's one thing if some company has got this collected, but we would assume there is theoretically some rules about how quickly they have to purge it, what they can or can't do with it. What are the ground rules?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    We kept hearing this one phrase, it's the Wild West, still.

    The online advertising industry is still very young. It has grown exponentially over the course of this past decade. And it is such a complex system that people who work in it don't actually really understand how the whole thing works. They say, we understand what we do, and we know maybe where it goes, but we have no idea where the information goes after that.

    So, that's a system by design. Like, this is a system that is made purposefully to be difficult to regulate, for consumers to understand, for even the participants in the system to understand. They will say that this location data, because it's technically anonymized, it doesn't contain a name or an address on it, but our investigation shows it's very easy to de-anonymize this data for most people.

    And so the rules don't quite fit with the sort of sneaky loopholes that this industry has created.

  • William Brangham:

    Devil's advocate question.

    What do I really care if a company is gathering the back and forths of my mundane life? I go to work, I go home, I go to my kids' school, I go to the grocery store. I mean, what are they really learning that I would be worried about?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    That argument gets put out a lot.

    I would say that, first and foremost, we have to start thinking about privacy as a collective concern as a society. This is — it's not just your privacy when you're in a public place and you're broadcasting your location.

    If you're at a protest, say, you could be broadcasting your location in a way that links you to somebody who really has a lot to lose if they are exposed there.

    When you have such a large swathe of surveillance, it starts to interact in ways that you wouldn't necessarily know. You bring your phone to a place of worship, that's a data point. And if information like this is being surveilled, or if it leaks, you're associated with that.

    The other thing, too, is that the sense of being sort of a corrosive mentality, we sort of think that we deserve this. We built this whole surveillance capitalism system not too long ago, and we have a chance to actually do something about it. We can govern how this works.

    We don't have to just accept what larger companies tell us.

  • William Brangham:

    You also detail in another story in the series that there are some real national security implications about this.

    I mean, you saw from this one data set phones pinging all over the White House, phones pinging all over the Pentagon.

    Can you tell us a little bit more about the one specific vignette that you drill into?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    We — early on in our reportings, we decided to look at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump's — quote, unquote — "winter White House" in Palm Beach.

    And it immediately became clear, when we isolated some of the devices, that they were moving to the Trump golf course there, and then to one of his other properties. And when we compared that with the president's public schedule, we realized that these were the sort of exact movements.

    So we zoomed out on the device, and were able to actually see that that person was a — believed to be a Secret Service agent. And we were able to follow that person to their home. We were able from there to understand who that person's spouse was, see trips to a school, per se, which was supposedly dropping off their child, things that no normal person should be able to see, especially a journalist 3,000 miles away.

    A Secret Service agent who is not securing the device is not thinking about the way in which they might be tracked is — it's actually giving up the location of the president United States.

  • William Brangham:

    For the people who are troubled by this and are genuinely alarmed, as I am, by your reporting, what are — are there things that we can all do collectively to protect our own personal phones?

  • Charlie Warzel:

    Yes.

    There are some things, but I think it's really important. And we have, on The New York Times' Web site, published a list of things that you can do to protect yourself. It's in the larger package of this. And I hope people will go look at it and take some of the steps.

    But one of the biggest things to remember about this is that, until we have some real regulations and some real enforcement, and that's enforced transparency in this industry, that's enforced disclosure of where this information is going, we're not going to be rid of this, because you can't fully opt out of this without opting out of modern society, without throwing your phone out the window and into the ocean.

    So, I think, more than anything, what we're hoping from this piece is that people understand what's on the other side of this tradeoff. You get those directions, you get that coupon, you get that personalized news alert, but you're giving something up.

    You're giving up a piece of yourself when you do this. And so, if people understand that, that's actually a really huge step in having this conversation and figuring out the norms around it.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, the series is called "One Nation Tracked."

    Charlie Warzel of The New York Times, thank you very much.

  • Charlie Warzel:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating.

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