Metadata Can Be More Revealing Than Your Actual Conversations

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National Security Agency installation in Fort Meade, Maryland January 25, 2006.
Photo: Brooks Kraft/ Corbis

"It's called protecting America," said Senator Dianne Feinstein of the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday, in response to questions about the government's indiscriminate collection of phone records from millions of Americans. "This is just metadata," she said. "There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication." What, exactly, is this data, and what does it tell them? According to the top-secret court order obtained by the Guardian, "the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over [to the National Security Agency], as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls." But taken together, and in mass, the implications are huge.

"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." (Marc Ambinder has a working explanation of that secretive process here, including what are supposed to be its checks and balances.)

"The average consumer should be afraid that the government is creating this map of their associations," said Mark Rumold, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "They use the metadata to create communications maps of Americans. So when they have a target — someone they believe is connected to terrorism — pull up their communications map." The First and Fourth Amendment implications, he said, should make Americans "very angry."

"The public doesn't understand," Landau told Mayer. "It's much more intrusive than content."

And the data isn't going anywhere. "There's no reason to throw it away," said Binney, noting that the storage space required is relatively minimal considering it's tracking much of the world. "Totalitarian states and dictators have been trying to do this, to get knowledge about their population — the KGB, the Gestapo, the SS, that's what they all tried to do. It's the same principle."

"Trust is a factor here," he said. "Do you trust your government? About as far as I can throw them."