All Tech Considered
6:17 am
Mon September 30, 2013

Your Digital Trail, And How It Can Be Used Against You

Originally published on Tue October 1, 2013 11:43 am

While the collection of private information by the National Security Agency is under scrutiny worldwide, a remarkable amount of your digital trail is also available to local law enforcement officers, IRS investigators, the FBI and private attorneys. And in some cases, it can be used against you.

This week, NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting are documenting just how vivid the typical person's digital picture has become — and how easy it can be for others to see it.

Read the full report at cironline.org/yourdata and tune in to the four-part series on All Things Considered starting tonight. The stories examine a day in the life of your data, how marketers track you, the power of the subpoena, and the larger consequences of living in a world of big data.

NPR and CIR found that there's a wide range of ostensibly private data that's obtainable even without court approval:

  • Law enforcement can create a map or timeline of a person's whereabouts by accessing data from license-plate scanners, toll-bridge crossings and mobile phone carriers and, without much trouble, access records on your power consumption, purchasing habits and even snail mail.

And while most of us know we're leaving behind a digital trail, consider how intricate that trail is and how easy it is for law enforcement, private investigators and marketers to paint a data portrait based on your actions throughout the day.

Examples from the series include online dating sites, like OKCupid.com. The report shows how profile questions on the site about things like drug use, religious beliefs and more were transmitted to a data tracking company, along with the user's IP address:

  • When you log in with a username and password to sites like Gmail, Amazon or OKCupid, your behavior can be linked to your real name or email address. [Software privacy specialist] Ashkan Soltani said personally identifying information also can unintentionally "leak" to third parties, even if companies say they have no need for such data; it's not clear what happens to the information once it falls into their hands.

The series also looks at your commute to and from work:

  • Surveillance cameras in subway stations and on city buses watch you board and depart.
  • To automatically identify celebrities and regular customers when they enter a store, some retailers reportedly are using another facial recognition technology originally developed in the U.K. for spotting terrorists and criminals.
  • Meanwhile, smart cards log when and where you travel using public transportation.
  • Police departments in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere around the country have used license-plate scanners to identify stolen cars and outstanding warrants. But the devices are designed to photograph vehicles and record the location, date and time of everyone who passes by without discriminating between criminals and innocent people.

Many people don't know their medical records are available to investigators and private attorneys:

  • While many Americans are under the impression that their medical records are protected by privacy laws, investigators and private attorneys enjoy special access there, too.

There are three ways the government and civil attorneys can try to access personal information: a search warrant, which requires the government to convince a judge there's probable cause of a crime; a court order; and the easiest, a subpoena.

Exactly what kind of data can be obtained with a search warrant is still relatively uncertain. Schulz and Zwerdling cite, for example, a case in which police obtained seven months' worth of location data from the cellphones of two robbery suspects — without a warrant.

Even unopened emails are up for grabs:

  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 was designed to protect Americans who at the time were using the Internet increasingly to communicate. But the government has interpreted the law to mean that once your emails are opened or older than 180 days, no warrant is required.
  • Even if an investigator faces some hurdles with your inbox, such as Google insisting on a warrant, email is not entirely protected. With a court order that doesn't reach probable cause, Google will give up your name, IP address, the dates and times you're signing in and out, and with whom you're exchanging emails.

The takeaway? While there are some measures you can take to prevent the government and others from monitoring your data and movements, much of what we do online and in public spaces can be used, sold and shared to create a remarkably detailed portrait of our lives.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

To some Americans, revelations about the National Security Agency and how it monitors phone calls, emails and the Internet might not seem relevant to their lives. The idea being if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to hide. But agents of the NSA aren't the only ones who could potentially get hold of personal information.

BLOCK: This week, we're going to examine the digital footprints most of us leave from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. Those footprints reveal what we do, what we think, who we know and where we go.

And as NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports, lots of different people could get their hands on that information, from local police to divorce attorneys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNORING)

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: It's 7 A.M. You start revealing your intimate habits to the outside world the moment you wake up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZWERDLING: At least, if you do what a lot of people do, you set an alarm on an app on your smartphone so you wake up to Internet radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALK SHOW)

BILL PRESS: It is a major crusade of mine, a major cause of mine. And that is to get rid of the "Star-Spangled Banner." Now, I know you're going to say I'm not a true American, I'm not...

ZWERDLING: Maybe you like to wake up to provocative talk shows. This one is Bill Press, maybe you prefer Bill Bennett. You can listened to hundreds of talk and music shows from Internet companies like Tune-up or Pandora.

KEVIN BANKSTON: They know which songs you're listening to, which radio programs you're listening to.

ZWERDLING: Kevin Bankston is a lawyer with the Center for Democracy and Technology. It's a nonpartisan research and advocacy group here in Washington, D.C. Bankston says whatever you're listening to...

BANKSTON: Someone is logging that. Whether you like the right-wing commentator or the left-wing commentator, whether it's Internet radio or just reading a news story after you've logged into The New York Times. There's a record that you consume that content. And that's not anything we've ever had before in human history, is anything close to a comprehensive look at the media you're consuming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOWER CURTAIN, WATER RUNNING)

ZWERDLING: And now it's 7:05 A.M. You drag yourself out of bed, you turn on the shower. And while the water is getting hot, you check your emails. Aha, there's one from a friend of yours. She writes, thought you might want to check this out since we argued about religion the other day. And she sent you a link to a book at BarnesAndNoble.com. You click...

(SOUNDBITE OF A KEYBOARD)

ZWERDLING: ...and instantly, the digital world out there has more information about you. The screen shows the cover of a book called "Jihad in the West." The title is in big yellow letters against a photo of a mosque. The book is a scholarly history. But if someone didn't know better, it might raise eyebrows. I asked a software specialist to analyze.

(SOUNDBITE OF A KEYBOARD)

ASKHAN SOLTANI: As the result of clicking on this link, "Jihad in the West," who all receives information about me, about me looking at this book?

ZWERDLING: Ashkan Soltani used to investigate software companies for the Federal Trade Commission. Now he's a consultant on online privacy and he's using special software that reveals something that you normally never see. Companies on the Internet commonly allow other companies to, in effect, spy on what you're doing on their websites.

The companies tracking you are usually hidden on the webpage. But Soltani's software shows the companies as white circles on a black background.

SOLTANI: ...7, 8, 9, 10, 11 - something like 15 different companies.

ZWERDLING: Fifteen?

SOLTANI: That's right. By looking up this book, "Jihad in the West" on Barnes & Noble, 15 other companies know that you've looked this up.

ZWERDLING: Many companies that track you want to know what interests you, so they can target ads specifically to you. Others gather personal information and then sell it to industry research outfits. The software that Soltani's using names the companies that are tracking our computer right now.

SOLTANI: We have Google.com, we have Coremetrics, Cridio, Scorecard Research, CMCore.com, and we'd have to look up kind of who these companies are.

ZWERDLING: So even you haven't heard of some of them.

SOLTANI: Yeah. You know, when I first started doing this research I was aware of, say, two to three hundred. And now they're in the thousands.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBWAY TRAIN ANNOUNCEMENT AND CROWD)

ZWERDLING: It's now 8:15 A.M. and let's say you're going to work, and you're creating more digital footprints.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBWAY TRAIN ANNOUNCEMENT)

COMPUTERIZED VOICE #1: Step back to allow the doors to close.

ZWERDLING: If you take the subway or bus, do you use a registered smartcard to pay the fare? The Transportation Department or its contractors keep computer logs that show when and where you travel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR AND IGNITION)

ZWERDLING: And if you drive, your local police might be taking photos of you in your car and storing it in their computers. Police across the country are using automatic license plate scanners now to help solve crimes.

MOHAMMED TABIBI: It simplifies the job a lot more.

ZWERDLING: That's Detective Mohammed Tabibi in Arlington, Virginia. His car has two cameras that sit on the hood like searchlights. As we cruise down the street, they automatically snap pictures of just about every license plate we pass, whether moving or parked. They can take up to 7,200 per hour. Every time they get a picture, it beeps.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

ZWERDLING: The system stores a picture that shows the license plate, the car, the GPS coordinates, the time, and the person getting in or out, if he or she happens to be there. The computer automatically sounds the alarm if the license is in the crime database.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ALARM)

COMPUTERIZED VOICE #2: Stolen vehicle.

TABIBI: I've located numerous stolen vehicles, at least 10 with the system.

ZWERDLING: Police aren't just using license plate scanners to catch criminals. They're accumulating millions of records that show where cars and their owners were spotted across America.

Until recently, Mary Ellen Callahan was a top adviser to the secretary of Homeland Security. She says as cities share this information...

MARY ELLEN CALLAHAN: You would have a very detailed snapshot of what my husband and I do in our car, where we travel, what our day is like.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good morning. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Fine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good.

ZWERDLING: Its 9 A.M., you arrive at work. The rest of the morning, you surf the Internet for your job. Court cases have established that your employer has the right to see everything you do on your work computer, including your personal emails.

(SOUNDBITE OF A KEYBOARD)

ZWERDLING: Finally it's 1 P.M. You tell your colleagues you're going to lunch. But you're not really going to lunch. You're going to a medical appointment and you don't want people to know it. But your cellphone leaves a digital trail.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZWERDLING: The hit TV show "Scandal" had an episode about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "SCANDAL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Cellphones - cellphones off - everybody turn off your cellphones. They can track the signals.

ZWERDLING: And a German politician named Malte Spitz knows what people can learn from your cellphone.

MALTE SPITZ: If someone has this information about you, this person has a map of your life.

ZWERDLING: A couple of years ago, Spitz sued his phone company in Germany so they'd give him the computer logs they keep on his cellphone. A computer specialist turned them into an animated map. And now, Spitz and I watch his life together. We are following roughly where he went 24 hours a day over six months.

And suddenly, I see your circle, you, zipping along at a pretty fast pace along what looks like a valley, past woods. Are you driving?

SPITZ: No. On August 31st, I go by high-speed train to Bavaria. Next day, I went to Munich.

ZWERDLING: Spitz and phone engineers will tell you that, in general, your phone company cannot track exactly where you are the way they show in the movies. Instead, your company logs which cellphone tower handles each of your calls and texts. So if you're in a rural area, where there aren't many towers, the logs might show where you were only within a few miles. If you're in a city with lots of towers, the log might be able to show which block you were on, even which building. And, of course, if you use smartphone apps that know your location...

(SOUNDBITE OF A SMARTPHONE APP)

COMPUTERIZED VOICE #3: Head west on K Street Northwest towards 1st Street Northwest.

ZWERDLING: They keep track of exactly where you've gone by connecting with GPS satellites.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SMARTPHONE APP)

COMPUTERIZED VOICE #3: Turn left onto 1st Street Northwest.

ZWERDLING: It's 2 P.M., back to the office. You work till five. But before you go home, you pop into the pharmacy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm here to pick up that prescription.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Thank you.

ZWERDLING: This is Brookville Pharmacy in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The owner, Hossein Ejtemai, says his computer stores seven years worth of details about your life. But he says they're private.

HOSSEIN EJTEMAI: What you're taking, what condition you are in, what kind of disease you have.

ZWERDLING: HIV, sexually transmitted diseases.

EJTEMAI: Anything - the list of your medications.

ZWERDLING: If my wife came to you and said, what medications is he taking?

EJTEMAI: I cannot give no information, doesn't matter who comes in.

ZWERDLING: Except police and even private lawyers can get your medical records with just a subpoena. We'll talk more about that later this week.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right great, thank you so much. Have a good day

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You, too.

ZWERDLING: Now it's just after 6 P.M. You're home. You're ready for dinner. So you go, where else, to the refrigerator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC SOUNDS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I know what you're thinking, it's just a fridge. But this isn't any old fridge. This is the LG Smartfridge...

ZWERDLING: Or it could be the smart refrigerator by Whirlpool or Samsung; most of the big companies are starting to promote smart appliances this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC SOUNDS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And thanks to its smart shopping feature you'll be able to actually buy your groceries online, directly from the fridge. Now, you'll all say...

ZWERDLING: Did you catch that? The refrigerator can scan the barcodes on the food you put into it and then it can order your groceries online when you need more. Now, maybe you're shaking your head and thinking, who needs a smart refrigerator? Or if you get one, do you care if some computer across the Internet keeps track of your food?

REBECCA HAROLD: Yeah, what's the big deal if somebody knows that I have a refrigerator and buy milk and eggs?

ZWERDLING: Rebecca Harold is a privacy specialist. She's part of an international committee set up by the U.S. Commerce Department to study smart energy systems. She says your milk and eggs might seem trivial but think about it. Every smart appliance, from the air conditioner to the thermostat, will reveal clues about your family. The smart fridge, too.

HAROLD: If you wanted to know before what type of food people were eating and how many people were in a particular location or apartment, you would've physically had to put some sort of surveillance. And this type of information can give insights into people's lives that you just haven't been able to get before.

ZWERDLING: Now, it's 9 P.M. You've finished dinner and you've loaded your smart dishwasher. You plop in front of the TV to watch Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "HOUSE OF CARDS")

KATE MARA: (as Zoe Barnes) You can't hurt me.

KEVIN SPACEY: (as Frank Underwood) Take your heels off.

ZWERDLING: But, of course, companies like Netflix track what you watch and when.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISE)

ZWERDLING: Hi, excuse me, guys, could I ask you something? Here on the streets in Washington D.C., most people I talk to aren't concerned. When you think about all the information about you that's out there in the digital world...

BRENT THORPE: It doesn't bother me. My name is Brent Thorpe(ph), Washington, D.C. It just doesn't bother me. I have nothing to hide.

DAVID COLE: The question is not, you know, should you be concerned about the government getting access to where you're travelling on the metro or who you're calling.

ZWERDLING: David Cole is a professor and a lawyer at Georgetown University.

COLE: Or what Internet sites you're browsing or how you're using your credit card.

ZWERDLING: He teaches constitutional law and national security.

COLE: The question is, should we be concerned when the government has access to all of that information and can put it together to create a picture of your private activities, your thoughts and desires, your interests and disinterests that is more intimate than almost anybody other than maybe your spouse is likely to be aware of?

ZWERDLING: And forget about government snooping for the moment; tomorrow, we'll learn more about companies that track the digital footprints of your life. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

CORNISH: Our story was co-reported by G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting and researched by Emma Anderson. Now, you can learn more about the digital world and privacy at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.