Your Digital Trail, And How It Can Be Used Against You : All Tech Considered 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.
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Your Digital Trail, And How It Can Be Used Against You

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


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.


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


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.


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.


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 You click...


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.


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.


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, we have Coremetrics, Cridio, Scorecard Research,, 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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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?



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.


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.


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


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...


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


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.

: OK.


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

: 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.


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.


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.


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


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

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