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The Call-In: Answering Your Questions About Digital Privacy

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is The Call-In.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Republican senators voted last week to undo FCC privacy rules for internet service providers. Those rules would have required telecom and cable companies to tell people what data is being collected from them and how they're using it. Telecom companies aren't the only places that collect your most important information. Google and Facebook and Apple do, too, as well as your Kindle, your thermostat, your fridge and your car. We asked for your questions about digital privacy.

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SARAH KENWORD: Hi, my name is Sarah Kenword (ph).

DAVID JACKSON: Hi, this is David Jackson (ph) in Hamakua, Hawaii.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: My question is, how do I protect myself and my personal information?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Does clearing the app cache provide any protection?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Those devices give up my personal information.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I'd like to know, and I thank you much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a moment, we'll get answers to those questions. But first, we're going to look at how well internet companies protect your privacy. The nonprofit Ranking Digital Rights has issued its latest ranking working with Consumer Reports. For the first time, it includes companies like Apple. I asked the group's head, Rebecca MacKinnon, how they stacked up.

REBECCA MACKINNON: Well, not so great. What we're looking at in the Ranking Digital Rights corporate accountability index is companies' public commitments and disclosures about what their policies are affecting users privacy as well as their freedom of expression and the company's kind of general governance. So do they have institutional mechanisms in place to make sure that all of their managers and employees are thinking about their users' rights? And while Apple is very well known for its CEO Tim Cook making statements about user privacy and the importance and Apple's also...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you've had these famous cases...

MACKINNON: That's right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Where Apple refused to hand over...

MACKINNON: Laudably, Apple has stood up for user privacy in the face of government demands. But when it comes to disclosing specifically what's being collected and how it's being used, they disclose less information than you'd expect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, so who scored well and why?

MACKINNON: Well, in this index, to say that there are leaders would also be misleading because if this were an academic test, the top two companies got D's and everybody else got F's. And so the reason why Google and Microsoft came out on top and then followed by Yahoo and Facebook, is not necessarily that they're doing all the right things. But at least they're telling us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're talking about massive companies, global companies, but we're seeing the internet of things. We're seeing all these devices now being internet-enabled in our homes, you know, from the microwave to the television. And those devices seem to have very little security, very little protection. What do you do about that?

MACKINNON: It's a real problem because a lot of these companies that are used to being device manufacturers, their management and their boards have not been asking questions about - how do we manage risk not just to the company but to our end users. Cars can be hacked. You know, many of us now when we rent cars and you see the data on the dashboard from the last person's phone that they synced with the car, and there's so much personal information that is now in cars. I mean, cars are increasingly sort of hybrid smartphones in many ways. And do these companies have policies and practices in place to protect our rights? There is no disclosure. So at the moment, we don't really know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rebecca MacKinnon is the director of Ranking Digital Rights.

Thanks so much.

MACKINNON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.