How and why mobile devices are tracking us

A visitor talks by his mobile phone as he attends the 1st day of Mobile World Congress on February 14, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain.

Kai Ryssdal: Big Brother's out there, he's watching us -- and you're carrying him with you in your purse or your pocket. You've seen or heard the news reports this week that Apple's iPhone and Google's Android phones are keeping detailed files about where you go and that they are sharing that information sometimes with the mothership.

Marketplace's Steve Henn is on the line to explain. Hey Steve.

Steve Henn: Hey.

Ryssdal: So let me ask this question, as we get going: if you use an ATM or a credit card or a shopper club card, companies know where you are. And companies have been tracking cell phones for a while. What's new about all this stuff that's come out this week?

Henn: Well, not a whole lot. Honestly I think what's really new is that all of a sudden, a lot of people are paying attention. But companies, industry insiders, reporters, probably a lot of the public, have known for years: mobile phones can track you, and often do track you wherever you go. Maybe the difference is that five years ago, it was only really cell phone companies that could track your movements with your phone. Now companies like Apple and Google are doing it, and even little start-ups making web apps can do it. So the number of companies tracking you is expanding.

Ryssdal: Are they tracking you in greater detail -- tracking us, we should say -- in greater detail?

Henn: No, just me. No, that actually is changing, and it's getting more and more detailed all the time. Companies are mapping Wi-Fi networks so they can triangulate your position using the Wi-Fi connection on your mobile phone. So they know exactly what street you're on, where on the street you are, even what store you're standing in front of. And you know, sometimes that's great, but the detail isn't going to stop there. There are stores that would love to know what aisle you're in.

I was talking to a guy who has a start-up here in Palo Alto that's using Wi-Fi networks, GPS and then image recognition hooked into existing security cameras in stores to follow you around from aisle to aisle. The app that guy's building is great, if let's say you need to find the peanut butter aisle in the Safeway, but it will also give these stores the ability to follow literally your every move.

Ryssdal: But if I know where the peanut butter is already, I don't recall being offered a chance to say no to being followed.

Henn: Yeah, and I think that is really one of the central issues here. I think lots of people who are upset about these stories don't feel like they were ever given a chance to find out exactly how much data was being collected about them or given a chance to say, you know what, I don't want you to do that. They weren't given an opt-out. The other big issue here, I think, the sleeper issue, is security. I've talked to hackers and security consultants who have broken these kinds of tracking systems on cell phone networks wide open. Here's one of them, Don Bailey.

Don Bailey: We're able to pretty much get whatever we wanted.

Henn: Bailey and his partner, a guy named Nick DePetrillo, reverse engineered the cell phone network to capture all kinds of tracking data on any phone in real time.

Bailey: Not only could we locate people, via their cell phone, we could also locate their devices without them knowing. So if you had a private number, we could easily find it.

Henn: Bailey shared all of his findings with cell phone companies and in the U.S., at least, these companies made some fixes. But you know, as more and more firms collect and store location information about you and me, the possibility for problems like this just multiply.

Ryssdal: Marketplace's Steve Henn, somewhere in Silicon Valley. We could track you down if we really wanted to, Steve. Steve, thanks a lot.

Henn: Sure thing.

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