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Jun 28, 2019

When a tech columnist digs into the secret life of his data

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And finds out just how much his iPhone and Chrome are collecting and sharing. (Lots.)

Most of us have this kind of vague sense that our devices and tech services are trading our data for advertising. But it’s still shocking to find out exactly how much your gadgets and services, and even your browser, are tracking what you do.

Host Molly Wood spoke with Geoffrey Fowler, who’s a technology columnist for the Washington Post. Over the last few months, he ran experiments on the tech he used every day, like his Amazon Echo, his iPhone and even his browser, Google Chrome.

The results were eye opening, and not in a good way. His reporting found that Amazon keeps all your recording failures indefinitely and how the iPhone let thousands of third-party data trackers take information while you sleep. Chrome one-upped that by letting more than 11,000 trackers watch his browsing in a single week. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

(James Pace-Cornsilk, Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post)

“I’m shocked at the scale of the surveillance and the tracking and some of the things that companies can learn about me.”

Geoffrey Fowler

Geoffrey Fowler: I’m shocked at the scale of the surveillance and the tracking and some of the things that companies are able to learn about me. This project I’ve been doing — in my own head, I call it “The Secret Life of My Data” — and I’ve just been going through running experiments on things that I take for granted in my life, like my Chrome browser. And every time I do it, I kind of come away a little more concerned about what these things are doing kind of by default.

Molly Wood: One of the pieces you wrote that really surprised me was about the iPhone, which is, like you said, some companies are promising privacy by default. But there was still plenty of data tracking.

“I hooked up my iPhone to some software that captured all the data that kind of went in and out overnight while I slept. And it was an insane amount…”

Geoffrey Fowler

Fowler: Totally. You may remember at CES, Apple put up a big billboard trying to thumb its nose at the rest of the tech industry. This billboard says, “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.” So what I did is with the help of some nerds, one of whom used to work for the [National Security Agency], I hooked up my iPhone to some software that captured all the data that kind of went in and out overnight while I slept. And it was an insane amount of data that was flowing while my screen was off. I wasn’t touching the phone. And when I dug into it, I found a lot of it was personally identifiable information. It was flowing out to companies I had never heard of.

Wood: I’m exhausted as a consumer as I think you are, too. Apple will say, or Facebook will say, or Google will say, “Well, we have all these settings, and if you just enable these settings, then you don’t have to be spied on to this extent.” Is that realistic for American consumers to have to do all this work themselves?

Fowler: I totally agree it is not realistic. These companies say that they give us controls and knobs that we can adjust. It’s kind of like saying, “Here’s the cockpit of a 747. It has a lot of knobs and controls. Now you can fly a 747.” And that is not the case. The point of me writing these columns is not just to help people figure out how to navigate and what things they can adjust. But the bigger point is sort of to embarrass these tech companies, including the ones that like to go in front of the media, in front of Congress and whoever will listen and say, “We care about your privacy.” Clearly, they’re not doing enough. This shouldn’t be about going in and making choices, as Google and Facebook like to say. This should be about the technology having our interests at heart from the beginning.

Related links: more insight from Molly Wood

About web trackers: There’s a funny story from Wired this week about how politicians say that Facebook needs to do more to protect user privacy. Many of those same politicians have websites that include embedded Facebook trackers that share information about what users visit those sites.

So if you have a Facebook account and you visit this page, this tracker tells Facebook, and Facebook adds this information to your profile. Also, the trackers on Sen. Josh Hawley’s site, Republican from Missouri, take note of everyone who donates and how much they donate. Then it sends that information back to Facebook. The article is careful to point out that this is not an oversight.

These web trackers must be explicitly authorized. Data scientist Hamdan Azhar wrote the piece and said the websites of 81 senators, 176 members of Congress, virtually every presidential candidate and President Donald Trump are all sharing information with Facebook.

The team