Special Report: Tracking Your Every Move - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Special Report: Tracking Your Every Move

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By Derek Staahl - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

MADISON (WKOW) -- From the pictures you post, to the websites you visit, detailed information about your daily life is being captured and stored online.

It's information that could have someone or something tracking your every move without your knowledge, a 27 News investigation has revealed.

"What we're seeing ultimately, we're seeing corporations understanding that data is everything. That knowing everything about the consumer, will make you, ultimately, the most successful business over the next 10 years," said UW-Madison Professor Dietram Scheufele.

Much of the tracking is done by online market research companies.

Take the popular website Dictionary.com. We found it secretly tracks users with more than 150 pieces of software as they browse the site, including cookies and beacons. The information is used, in part, to generate targeted ads.

But many of these trackers could also be collecting sensitive financial or health information, according to their privacy policies.

"The ultimate goal is to know who you are and what you do at any given moment, for better or for worse," said Scheufele.

Geotagged Pictures

Your pictures could also be sharing more than you'd think. Some are embedded with GPS coordinates and a date stamp right inside the file. It's called geotagging, and it's accurate to within about 15 feet.

With help from software consultant Nate Beck of Seattle-based Zaa Labs, we searched more than a thousand Twitter pictures belonging to public figures in our state.

"With camera phones and GPS devices being combined in kind of the same device, a lot of consumers don't really realize, normally it's on by default," said Beck.

We found GPS information embedded in photos posted by former Senator Russ Feingold, Senator Ron Johnson, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and Governor Scott Walker.

The governor's office said it had no idea the data was there.

We found data in a photo posted by the Green Bay Packers that pin-pointed the location of the hotel players were staying in during the Super Bowl -- posted while the players were staying there.

A spokesperson says the Packers are aware some of their pictures may contain GPS information, and wouldn't post something they believe would be a security risk.

But the most data we found was uploaded by UW Dean of Students Lori Berquam. In 2009, she posted dozens of GPS-tagged photos.

Using that information, we were able to track where she lives, how she gets to work and what time she leaves her house, even when and where she walks her dogs on weekends.

Berquam said through a spokesperson she didn't know her pictures revealed that information.

"Privacy, there is really no such thing as privacy now."

Licensed private investigator Steven Watson knows how valuable this kind of data can be. He says it could be powerful in all kinds of personal injury or domestic cases. But there's also a flip side to better technology.

Watson says it can enable criminals.

"You take an individual who is stalking his girlfriend. He can get a hold of her phone, download some fairly simple software on there, and be able to track her where ever she goes."

That with or without geotagged pictures.

The Justice Department estimates more than 25,000 people in the country are victims of GPS stalking each year.

What you can do about it

The website privacychoice.org lets you see what tracking companies are on many popular sites, and will give you detailed breakdowns of each company's privacy policies.

There are plug-ins available for your web browser that can block many common trackers and web bugs.

For more about geotagged pictures and making sure your photos don't accidentally contain GPS information, go to the awareness website icanstalku.com.

The site has step-by-step instructions to turn off GPS encoding for both iPhones and Android-based devices.

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