Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why The US Government Never Metadata It Didn't Like

I once owned a cell phone like that...
It's pretty clear by now (thanks primarily to a British news org, The Guardian) that the US government not only allows itself to spy on massive numbers of American citizens who are not, as individuals, suspected of any wrongdoing, but also that it collects the data resulting from such spying and analyzes the resulting collection for patterns. With such "data mining" (look it up), the distinction between being highly critical of the government (which I frequently am) and plotting revolution or terrorism (which I am not) becomes unclear to certain kinds of people... often enough the kind of people in our government today.

These people, who include our duly elected President Obama, have a ready excuse asserting the innocuous nature of their surveillance: "We are only collecting the metadata," i.e., the packet wrappers, addressing information, duration of calls, etc., not the content.

As if you couldn't tell a Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar from a Snickers bar by the empty wrappers alone! Give me a break!

Putting aside the apparent fact that NSA, using its PRISM system, is apparently collecting content despite all claims to the contrary, two ACLU leaders, Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, and Ben Wizner, the director of that same ACLU project, writing for Reuters, give us a lucid explanation of why our government would collect "only" metadata. Here's an excerpt:

But any suggestion that Americans have nothing to worry about from this dragnet collection of communications metadata is wrong. Even without intercepting the content of communications, the government can use metadata to learn our most intimate secrets – anything from whether we have a drinking problem to whether we’re gay or straight. The suggestion that metadata is “no big deal” – a view that, regrettably, is still reflected in the law – is entirely out of step with the reality of modern communications.

So what exactly is metadata? Simply, if the “data” of a communication is the content of an email or phone call, this is data about the data – the identities of the sender and recipient, and the time, date, duration and location of a communication. This information can be extraordinarily sensitive. 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.

... 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. ...


Please read the article: the details, as it turns out, are important.

UPDATE: upyernoz of rubber hose points us to a Slate article by Emma Roller containing a good introduction to Section 215 of the (2005 revised) PATRIOT Act, which is apparently the basis of the NSA PRISM program.


  1. So just for the rest of us --- metadata is the envelope while data is the letter inside the envelope. ;)

    1. c, one would assume that, but in the case of a cell phone call or email, metadata includes a lot more than the envelope. It contains identifying info for both parties (or more, if it's a broadcast email), routing information through the system for the call or email (which yields physical location for a cell phone), and, if the call is ongoing, its duration to this point (or if the call is finished, the total duration). Are you a customer for illegal drugs, talking to your dealer, or a dealer talking to a supplier? The metadata incorporates that info. Are you a politician or a church leader, having an affair with an admirer? That can be deduced from the metadata of your phone calls. Are you commuting daily from point A to point B? The metadata can show your route on the streets or rails to someone intent on assassinating you. That's a lot more than you can get from an envelope!

    2. Steve,

      of course you're right, although often an envelope will have a return address, a postmark that tells where it was mailed, etc. I just wanted to oversimplify a bit for the rest for the rest of us by drawing an analogy. I don't like what the government is doing here any more than you do.

    3. c, to pursue the matter past all reason, here is my postal address, which is my return address on almost all postal mail I send:

      PO Box 272488
      Houston, TX 77277-2488

      OK now... based only on that, where am I physically located? You can get as close as Houston, TX, but when I am at my desk, I am at least 2 miles from my postal address.

  2. Steve I'm sure you can understand that I am not trying to minimize what the governement is doing or much less excuse it. I think it's all as heinous as you seem to think. I was merely drawing an analogy so as to explain to the less-tech-savvy. Such people do exist you know. I'm sure you are aware that plenty of people use a street address as return address even if you don't and that a postmark will show if, for example, you went to another city to mail the letter. I hardly think such an analogy makes me a fascist.

    1. "Such people do exist you know." - c

      Really?? :D

      I admit my offended state is mostly due to an abstraction. But the abstraction is encapsulated in the Fourth Amendment, and I learned by watching the brutal treatment of the (almost wholly nonviolent) Occupy movement just what can happen when a government chooses to ignore the Bill of Rights. This is not the America I grew up in, and I'm not just waxing nostalgic. Even then, most oppressive behavior (e.g., the very visible agents present at every college anti-Vietnam-War demonstration) was by and large nonviolent. Something significant has changed...



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