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Keeping Track Of Your Digital Footprints


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Most of us are willing to share certain things about our lives with our friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter, but the NSA scandal has got us all thinking more these days about who else we might be inadvertently sharing our emails and phone calls with. And we're all vaguely aware that commercial websites collect data about us, but how much? And should we be worried about this? If you've been thinking harder about your own privacy in the digital age, you are most certainly not alone and you have help. That's the good news. NPR's Steve Henn is here in the studio. Welcome to the show, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: OK. So, people share more information than they're aware of.

HENN: Right. And I think, you know, obviously, when you post on Facebook you know you're sharing information. But I think sometimes people don't realize how much information you're sharing. So, you know, one of the ways this happens is when you share a picture. And maybe the best way to demonstrate this is to show this picture that my wife sent me.


HENN: I've just dropped it into an app - and there are lots of apps like this available - and you can see all the information attached to it, including latitude and longitude. If I just click this button, it shows you automatically exactly where that picture was taken. And if we zoom in, it will actually show you the building and where in the building it was. I mean, that's...

MARTIN: That is amazing. Yeah, I don't think people realize.

HENN: So, all of this information gets stored. And if you email a picture to a friend or post it on a social network, a lot of that can be out there and easily accessible.

MARTIN: So, that happens every time you take a picture, that specific data is catalogued.

HENN: Right. Unless you go into your phone and turn the location services information on your camera off, which you have to know a little bit to do. Most people, I think, don't do it. You know, I have an 11-year-old daughter and lots of her friends are getting cameras. Recently, a friend took a picture of her that came up. And these are all tech-savvy kids, you know, in Silicon Valley. A lot of their parents are in this industry, including Nico Sell, the cofounder of a company called Wickr. I spoke to her recently about her own daughter, who's about the same age as mine.

NICO SELL: She posted a picture that she didn't consider dangerous up on Instagram, but it was a picture of our dog at our house that was geotagged.

HENN: And that innocuous picture basically makes it possible to track down Nico's daughter at home, that geotag - that little bit of metadata attached to the picture - shows where it was taken. And today, all smartphones and most cameras add those tags automatically. You know, and it's like writing your address on the back of a photo.

MARTIN: Yeah, that's scary to me as a parent. But just as a person, that's disconcerting. So, all of this means that people who aren't nearly as tech-savvy as Nico Sell's daughter are probably making mistakes all the time.

HENN: Right. We're all leaving digital footprints all over the place and most of us don't realize we're doing it. Because of that experience, Nico, who's an entrepreneur and really involved in computer security, built an app called Wickr that would make a little bit easier for people to take more control over their digital lives. OK. So, I just sent you a little video of my kid singing happy birthday.

MARTIN: All right. So, I'm going to log into Wickr. And, look, Steve Henn has sent me a message.

HENN: When you touch that message, it actually decrypts the message on your phone.

MARTIN: OK. Tap to unlock.

HENN: And then you can just touch it and play.


MARTIN: Ah, it was very cute.

HENN: The thing that's kind of cool about this is you can set a time limit for how long that message will last on your phone. So, instead of creating these permanent digital records, where you're leaving all of this data about yourself behind and you don't even know what it is, it puts the user in a position of control, where they get to decide how long something is shared for.

MARTIN: But it does require some more effort. I mean, do you have - in your reporting, especially living in Silicon Valley, are people really using this to streamline all of their online communication?

HENN: No. I think depending on how sensitive you are to your own privacy, it's helpful to know that tools like this are out there. One of the things that's interesting about this one is it makes it a little bit easier to use. Perhaps over time, as we continue to have conversations about privacy like this, we'll see more attention in Silicon Valley about making tools available that are easy to use that also allow you to control how your information is shared.

MARTIN: I feel safer already. Thank you so much. NPR's Steve Henn.

HENN: Oh, it was a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.