Why “It’s just metadata” is so much pablum
When the story about US government digital surveillance broke last week, “no need to worry, it’s just metadata” was one of the official canned responses.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That is not what this program is about…. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who may engage in terrorism,” President Obama said.
Never mind that no news report had made that claim; the positioning was intended to downplay the importance of the information (seriousness of the secret program).
The President didn’t deny the actual report — that every day of the year Verizon is providing NSA with metadata on its customers.
In the Sunday edition, the New York Times reminds us of why “it’s just metadata” should not go down easy.
When separate streams of data are integrated into large databases — matching, for example, time and location data from cellphones with credit card purchases or E-ZPass use — intelligence analysts are given a mosaic of a person’s life that would never be available from simply listening to their conversations. Just four data points about the location and time of a mobile phone call, a study published in Nature found, make it possible to identify the caller 95 percent of the time. (emphasis added)
[Phone] data, obtained from cellphone towers, can track the altitude of a person, down to the specific floor in a building. There is even software that exploits the cellphone data seeking to predict a person’s most likely route. “It is extreme Big Brother,” said Alex Fielding, an expert in networking and data centers.
Earlier this week, mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau told the New Yorker:
“The public doesn’t understand,” she told me, speaking about so-called metadata. “It’s much more intrusive than content.” She explained that the government can learn immense amounts of proprietary information by studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content.”
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.” … Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint….
Metadata, Landau noted, can also reveal sensitive political information, showing, for instance, if opposition leaders are meeting, who is involved, where they gather, and for how long. Such data can reveal, too, who is romantically involved with whom, by tracking the locations of cell phones at night. (emphasis added)
Quentin Hardy at the New York Times BITS column has more:
“A call to a suicide hot line, Alcoholics Anonymous, or a gay sex chat room at 2 a.m. are all more sensitive” than the actual message, said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. “You can text political donations. The metadata shows your political leanings, the content just shows the amount you gave. Calling a cell tower away from my house in the middle of the night indicates I’m not sleeping at home.”
It’s as though the nation has suffered collective amnesia.
No one remembers Hoover.
No one remembers Nixon.
Heck, Congress knew the importance of metadata when they passed the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) in 1988, after someone obtained (and then printed) the rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. (The title of a movie is a form of metadata.)
The fourth amendment is central to protecting privacy and, by extension, liberty.
And it is threatened by these forms of mass secret surveillance.
Both the Patriot Act and FISA have eroded our constitutional rights beyond reason. Tell your Congressmen to roll them back.
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