Privacy Paradox: How To Gain More Control Over Your Data
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We've been working with our friends at WNYC's podcast "Note To Self" on a little experiment to give people more control over the information they share online. It's called The Privacy Paradox. And Manoush Zomorodi is back to talk more about it. Hey there, Manoush.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: Hello, Audie.
CORNISH: So first just remind us what you were having people do in the way of an experiment.
ZOMORODI: OK. So digital privacy - obviously it's a huge topic. And so what we did is we broke it down into five parts to really explain how we all get tracked and profiled online. And then we had easy tasks that listeners could do that would help them take back a little bit of control over their digital identity.
For example, we explain the difference between all the data versus the metadata coming out of our phones. And then we ask people to do something that many of us just don't bother with. Really dig down into the app settings on your phone. See what information these apps are collecting that they don't actually need to function, like a recipe app that wants access to your contacts. Here's what happened to one listener, Dan Clarkson, in Manhattan.
DAN CLARKSON: The best thing I discovered was that my flashlight app had access to my microphone and my contacts and my location. That app got the ax.
CORNISH: OK, this is crazy to me (laughter) because this is the kind of app you would not go digging in the settings for - right? - for this precise reason. You're like, I just need light. That's enough. What were some of the other kind of more common responses you heard from people as they started rooting around in the settings?
ZOMORODI: Surprise, irritation at how greedy some of these apps are that they want to sell all kinds of your digital behavior, not just the product. And we heard from listeners how frustrating it is that they have to specifically opt out of being tracked.
CORNISH: And I should say, people do do this, right? This is kind of digital privacy 101. So how did you guys step it up from there?
ZOMORODI: We asked advanced people to text us using an encrypted text messaging app called Signal because as we explained, even if you don't think that you need private texting, there are people in this country who are worried that their beliefs or origins could be held against them, and they do want private communication. So the idea being that the more people who use apps like Signal, the less suspect they become.
And I heard this great metaphor from a cryptographer, Audie, that if everyone uses a postcard, then an envelope is suspicious. But if everyone uses an envelope, it's just an envelope. And by the way, Audie, reportedly there are some under the new administration, like scientists at the EPA, who are using encrypted text messaging, too, to discuss now-divisive issues like the country's environmental agenda.
CORNISH: And I should note many journalists are using it, including me. So you're kind of making me feel better about that with that envelope analogy.
ZOMORODI: Good. That makes me happy.
CORNISH: Now, after completing your Privacy Paradox experiment, did people say they actually felt that they were more in control of their personal information online? Is that even possible actually?
ZOMORODI: Well, I think people felt they did get back some control, or at least they understood what it feels like to have a little control. But also, they realized how much privacy does matter to them. So before the project, 43 percent of those we surveyed said they knew how to get more privacy into their life. After the project, that number went up to 80 percent.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. Many of them told us they felt inspired to change the way they live online. So one listener said that she went through; she deleted all the old social media accounts that are floating around the web that she doesn't use anymore. Another person said she got an email from her IT department, and instead of just going ahead and doing what they asked her to do, she called them back and asked questions. We heard from digital marketers who said that actually they have decided to maybe look for another job - so all kinds of different ways that people reacted.
CORNISH: Well, we should tell people that they can still get involved. The Privacy Paradox experiment is still going on. What happens next?
ZOMORODI: Well, Audie, we spend nearly half of every day in front of a screen. And so I think more and more of us are understanding that our right to privacy needs to be protected online as well as off. Seventy-four percent of those we surveyed said that learning more about this issue has made them want to take action. And, yes, as you said, the project lives on. You can join any time.
CORNISH: That's Manoush Zomorodi, host of the podcast "Note To Self" from member station WNYC. You can sign up for The Privacy Paradox at the All Tech Considered blog on npr.org. Manoush, thanks so much.
ZOMORODI: Always a pleasure, Audie.
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