Metadata” Can Tell the Government More About You Than the Content of Your Phonecalls

12 June 2013 — WashingtonsBlog

Why Should You Care If the Government Spies On Your Metadata?

The government has sought to “reassure” us that it is only tracking “metadata” such as the time and place of the calls, and not the actual content of the calls.

But technology experts say that “metadata” can be more revealing than the content of your actual phone calls.

For example, the ACLU notes:

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study a few years back found that reviewing people’s social networking contacts alone was sufficient to determine their sexual orientation. Consider, metadata from email communications was sufficient to identify the mistress of then-CIA Director David Petraeus and then  drive him out of office.

The “who,” “when” and “how frequently” of communications are often more revealing than what is said or written. Calls between a reporter and a government whistleblower, for example, may reveal a relationship that can be incriminating all on its own.

Repeated calls to Alcoholics Anonymous, hotlines for gay teens, abortion clinics or a gambling bookie may tell you all you need to know about a person’s problems. If a politician were revealed to have repeatedly called a phone sex hotline after 2:00 a.m., no one would need to know what was said on the call before drawing conclusions. In addition sophisticated data-mining technologies have compounded the privacy implications by allowing the government to analyze terabytes of metadata and reveal far more details about a person’s life than ever before.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out:

What [government officials] are trying to say is that disclosure of metadata—the details about phone calls, without the actual voice—isn’t a big deal, not something for Americans to get upset about if the government knows. Let’s take a closer look at what they are saying:

  • They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
  • They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
  • They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.
  • They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
  • They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood’s number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.

Sorry, your phone records—oops, “so-called metadata”—can reveal a lot more about the content of your calls than the government is implying. Metadata provides enough context to know some of the most intimate details of your lives.  And the government has given no assurances that this data will never be correlated with other easily obtained data.

New York Magazine explains:

“When you take all those records of who’s communicating with who, you can build social networks and communities for everyone in the world,” mathematician and NSA whistle-blower William Binney — “one of the best analysts in history,” who left the agency in 2001 amid privacy concerns — told Daily Intelligencer. “And when you marry it up with the content,” which he is convinced the NSA is collecting as well, “you have leverage against everybody in the country.”

“You are unique in the world,” Binney explained, based on the identifying attributes of the machines you use. “If I want to know who’s in the tea party, I can put together the metadata and see who’s communicating with who. I can construct the network of the tea party. If I want to pass that data to the IRS, then I can do that. That’s the danger here.”

At The New Yorker, Jane Mayer quoted mathematician and engineer Susan Landau’s hypothetical: “For example, she said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: ‘You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.’”

“There’s a lot you can infer,” Binney continued. “If you’re calling a physician and he’s a heart specialist, you can infer someone is having heart problems. It’s all in the databases.” The data, he said, is “all compiled by code. The software does it all from the beginning — they have dossiers of everyone in the country. That’s done automatically. When you want to investigate or target somebody, a human becomes involved.”

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“The public doesn’t understand,” Landau told Mayer. “It’s much more intrusive than content.”

The Guardian reports:

The information collected on the AP [in the recent scandal regarding the government spying on reporters] was telephony metadata: precisely what the court order against Verizon shows is being collected by the NSA on millions of Americans every day.

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Discussing the use of GPS data collected from mobile phones, an appellate court noted that even location information on its own could reveal a person’s secrets: “A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups,” it read, “and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

Indeed, the government’s spying on our metadata arguably violates our right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by numerous laws and charters including the U.S. Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and international law, including articles 20 and 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labor Organization.

Remember, a U.S. federal judge found that the statute allowing indefinite detention of Americans without due process has a“chilling effect” on free speech. Top reporters have said that they are less likely to interview controversial peoplefor fear of being accused of “supporting” terrorists.

Given the insanely broad list of actions and beliefs which may get one labeled as a “potential terrorist” by local, state or federal law enforcement, the free association of Americans is being chilled.   For example, people may be less willing to call  their niece calling to end the Fed, their Occupy-attending aunt, their Tea Party-promoting cousin, their anti-war teacher, or their anti-fracking uncle.

Spying on Americans’ metadata rolls back everything our freedom of association … and virtually everything the Founding Fathers fought for.

Indeed, computer experts have used an analogy to explain how powerful metadata is: the English monarchy could have stopped the Founding Fathers in their tracks if they only possessed “metadata” regarding which colonist talked to whom.

Postscript: The government is – in fact – gathering content, as well as metadata.

And mass surveillance doesn’t work to keep us safe. It does, however, set up a technological framework allowing for “turnkey tyranny”.