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Your Smartphone Is Tracking You, But Don't Worry

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Your Smartphone Is Tracking You, But Don't Worry


Your Smartphone Is Tracking You, But Don't Worry

Your Smartphone Is Tracking You, But Don't Worry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Critics are up in arms since learning that the Apple iPhone keeps records of everywhere the mobile devices go. Technological tracking, in general, has increased as mobile devices, GPS systems, and Internet services such as Facebook and find new ways to gather and use consumer data. Host Michel Martin speaks with Sree Sreenivasan, dean of Student Affairs and Digital Media Professor at Columbia Journalism School. He says this tracking is neither new nor necessarily bad.


We're going to switch gears now and talk about data mining. Apple has gotten a lot of bad press lately for keeping detailed records of everywhere the iPhone goes. And by extension that means everywhere its customers go. Yesterday, Apple's chief executive, Steve Jobs, told The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that the iPhone did not intend to track its users but was trying to make Internet service faster by locating nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers.

Still, Jobs concedes that his company should've done a better job of educating customers about the software, and he says a fix is on the way. But this isn't the only modern technology to track and keep customer data.

Joining me now to discuss the issue of privacy in the age of modern technology is Sree Sreenivasan. He's on the phone with us from his office at Columbia University, where he's dean of student affairs and digital media professor at Columbia Journalism School in New York. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

SREE SREENIVASAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: How upset are people about this issue?

SREENIVASAN: Well, people are upset when they hear about these kinds of tracking situations going on. But I tell people they shouldn't be - they could be upset, but they shouldn't be surprised. There's a difference between those. And the reason is that we are being tracked by our devices, by our computer programs, by just being part of modern society. Someone somewhere or multiple someones are tracking you all the time.

MARTIN: Is this seen as a particular breach of trust between iPhone customers and Apple or is this just part of the broader, you know, array of the issues, of privacy issues that people are thinking about all the time?

SREENIVASAN: It depends on who you talk to. There are people who felt that this was, you know, absolutely kind of - came out of nowhere, that this happened. But as we've seen with many other technologies, that this should not - again, it should not have been a surprise, but I think Apple is getting a lot of credit for saying, OK, we're going to fix this problem. It wasn't intentional.

I thought it was interesting that both of these major star CEOs, one CEO of Apple and one CEO of America, both of them had to sort of go on the air and talk about an issue that they didn't want to talk about. I'm talking about Obama's birth certificate and this yesterday and saying, look, you know, here's what we know and here is what we're going to do to stop the noise around this particular topic.

MARTIN: The iPhone isn't the only technology that tracks user behavior. You know, obviously credit card records record where you spend money. Grocery stores keep track of the food you buy. And I just wanted to ask, is it that more people are gathering the data or is it just that this information is already at their fingertips and they're just finding ways to profit from it?

SREENIVASAN: Well, this is the question that we have to deal with, that if - I think that people are surprised when they hear, for example, that they're being tracked everywhere they go online, just on a computer. When you go, people are tracking and ads are being served up based on your traffic patterns. And the question becomes, is it the fact that they're doing it or is it the fact that they're trying to make more money from it?

I wonder if there would be a phone company that comes out and says we will track you less, please use us. But the bigger problem is that every time consumers have been given a choice between privacy and convenience, they have always picked convenience.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that, because there are those who would say, well, you know what? I like the fact that my iPhone knows where I am. What if something happens to me? You know, what if somebody steals it or me? And that way you can find me. Is that the dominant point of view?

SREENIVASAN: Many people have on their phones software that once you lose your iPhone, you hit a button and on a computer screen on the Web you can pinpoint the location of the lost phone or the stolen phone. And we've had people who were able to recover their phones like that. Or if you are, in fact, kidnapped, maybe people can - the law enforcement folks can come and find you.

So it again depends on what situation you're in. What sounds like a horrible, terrible invasion of privacy at that moment, if that's what helps you escape from a kidnapping or be found, you'll love that technology. So this is the dance that we do with technology and the fact that we're being - everything about us has become more digital.

You know, you're in a car and you go through these toll bridges with - using the electronic payments system, they know exactly where you are. And that's another way in which you're being tracked.

MARTIN: All right. We know exactly where you are. You are at Columbia University, where you are the dean of student affairs and a professor of digital media. That was Sree Sreenivasan. He with us on the phone from his office in New York. At least I think that's where he is. Professor, thank you so much for joining us.


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