Spying On Metadata

NSA Spying On “Metadata” Is As Bad As Listening to the Content of Our Phone Calls … Or WORSE

Why Spying On Metadata Is Even MORE Intrusive than Listening to Content

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

There is substantial evidence from top whistleblowers that the government is recording the content of our calls and emails … word-for-word.

And former CIA deputy director – and White House NSA spying panel member – Mike Morrell says that metadata is content.

But even accepting the government’s claims at face value, technology experts say that “metadata” can be more revealing than the content of your actual phone calls.

For example, security expert Bruce Schneier points out:

Metadata equals surveillance.

Imagine you hired a detective to eavesdrop on someone. He might plant a bug in their office. He might tap their phone. He might open their mail. The result would be the details of that person’s communications. That’s the “data.”

Now imagine you hired that same detective to surveil that person. The result would be details of what he did: where he went, who he talked to, what he looked at, what he purchased — how he spent his day. That’s all metadata.

When the government collects metadata on people, the government puts them under surveillance. When the government collects metadata on the entire country, they put everyone under surveillance.

In other words, a bug can record what you say, but a detective tailing you would know exactly where you’ve gone, who you’ve talked to, and what you’re actually doing. That’s much more intrusive. Moreover, you might watch what you say – or speak in generalities or in code – if you’re worried about someone listening to your content.   But if a detective is following you around 24 hours a day, he’ll know exactly what you’re really up to.

After all, the NSA is tracking your exact location when you make or receive phone calls … not just the time, duration and phone numbers involved in the calls. And see this.

And Stanford researchers say that it is trivially easy to match metadata to people’s actual name and identity.

The clerk and chief executive of the UK’s House of Commons, Ontario’s privacy chief and other government officials say that metadata is much more revealing than content.   High-level NSA whistleblower Kirk Wiebe says that the government prefers metadata to content … since it gives more information. Edward Snowden agrees, saying: “In most cases, content isn’t as valuable as metadata [to the NSA].”

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.’” [Landau gives a more detailed explanation here.]

“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.”


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

Business Insider reports:

“Calling patterns can reveal when we are awake and asleep; our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the Sabbath or makes a large number of calls on Christmas Day; our work habits and our social aptitude; the number of friends we have, and even our civil and political affiliations,” Mr. Felten wrote in a legal brief filed in support of the ACLU’s case.

Scott Shane of The New York Times reports that Felton added that sophisticated data analysis, which involves using software that can instantly trace chains of social connections to analyze data, can make metadata even more revealing than the contents of calls.

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.

ARS Technica writes:

The ACLU filed a declaration by Princeton Computer Science Prof. Edward Felten to support its quest for a preliminary injunction in that lawsuit. Felten, a former technical director of the Federal Trade Commission, has testified to Congress several times on technology issues, and he explained why “metadata” really is a big deal.


There are already programs that make it easy for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to analyze such data, like IBM’s Analyst’s Notebook. IBM offers courses on how to use Analyst’s Notebook to understand call data better.


 Court Documents

Unlike the actual contents of calls and e-mails, the metadata about those calls often can’t be hidden. And it can be incredibly revealing—sometimes moreso than the actual content.

Knowing who you’re calling reveals information that isn’t supposed to be public. Inspectors general at nearly every federal agency, including the NSA, “have hotlines through which misconduct, waste, and fraud can be reported.” Hotlines exist for people who suffer from addictions to alcohol, drugs, or gambling; for victims of rape and domestic violence; and for people considering suicide.

Text messages can measure donations to churches, to Planned Parenthood, or to a particular political candidate.

Felten points out what should be obvious to those arguing “it’s just metadata”—the most important piece of information in these situations is the recipient of the call.

The metadata gets more powerful as you collect it in bulk. For instance, showing a call to a bookie means a surveillance target probably made a bet. But “analysis of metadata over time could reveal that the target has a gambling problem, particularly if the call records also reveal a number of calls made to payday loan services.”

The data can even reveal the most intimate details about people’s romantic lives. Felten writes:

Consider the following hypothetical example: A young woman calls her gynecologist; then immediately calls her mother; then a man who, during the past few months, she had repeatedly spoken to on the telephone after 11pm; followed by a call to a family planning center that also offers abortions. A likely storyline emerges that would not be as evident by examining the record of a single telephone call.

With a five-year database of telephony data, these patterns can be evinced with “even the most basic analytic techniques,” he notes.

By collecting data from the ACLU in particular, the government could identify the “John Does” in the organization’s lawsuits that have John Doe plaintiffs. They could expose litigation strategy by revealing that the ACLU was calling registered sex offenders, or parents of students of color in a particular school district, or people linked to a protest movement.

The ACLU notes:

One of the most disingenuous arguments in the aftermath of the NSA spying revelations is that the American people shouldn’t be concerned about the government hoovering up its sensitive information because it’s only metadata–or a fancy way of saying data about the data.


A tool developed by MIT Media Lab proves how intrusive the collection and analysis of metadata is over time, especially for those who are overly reliant on email as their main method of communication. Dubbed “Immersion,” the tool analyzes the metadata–From, To, Cc and Timestamp fields– from a volunteer’s Gmail account and visualizes it.


What you see here is a full analysis of my personal and professional networks over 8.8 years of using Gmail.


Metadata, no matter what the detractors say, collected over time is an intimate repository of our lives–whom we love, whom we’re friends with, where we work, where we worship (or don’t), and whom we associate with politically. The right to privacy means our metadata shouldn’t be collected and analyzed without reasonable suspicion that we’ve done something wrong.

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.

Foreign Policy reported that metadata may not catch terrorists, but it’s great at busting journalists and their sources:

The National Security Agency says that the telephone metadata it collects on every American is essential for finding terrorists. And that’s debatable. [Indeed, top counter-terrorism experts say that all of this spying , and that it actually hurts U.S. counter-terror efforts (more here and here).] But this we know for sure: Metadata is very useful for tracking journalists and discovering their sources.

On Monday, a former FBI agent and bomb technician pleaded guilty to leaking classified information to the Associated Press about a successful CIA operation in Yemen. As it turns out, phone metadata was the key to finding him.


The real reason the government is going after leakers is because it can. Investigators today have greater access to phone records and e-mails than they did before Obama took office, allowing them to follow digital data trails straight to the source.


In a highly controversial move, investigators secretly obtained a subpoena for phone records of AP reporters and editors.


Once investigators looked at that phone metadata, they got their big break in the case.


It’s no wonder that the Obama administration is going after leakers so often. Metadata is the closest thing to a smoking gun that they’re likely to have, absent a wiretap or a copy of an email in which the source is clearly seen giving a reporter classified information.


If you’re looking for a case study in the power of metadata, you’ve found it.

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.


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.”

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.

Let’s end with another example.  If a married man calls a woman who is not his wife and says, “you’re really pretty”, it may indicate (1) that he’s merely flirting with her (2) that he’s having an affair or (3) he’s trying to reassure someone who’s got low self-confidence.

But metadata could show that he’s gone to the woman’s apartment every night for a week and fielded calls from his wife which lasted only a short time, that he’s ordered flowers every day, that he’s researched various local obstetrician/gynecologists, that he booked tickets to Tahiti, and that he’s been searching for baby names, Tahitian wedding sites, and looked for hours at a time at “how to get divorced” information online.

After all, the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA also spies on Americans’ credit card transactions, travel records and internet searches. Here and here. And the Guardian notes that the NSA spies on text messages worldwide.

In other words, content could give ambiguous information about whether he’s trying to reassure someone,  flirting with another woman … or having actually an affair.  But metadata can show fairly conclusively that he’s having an affair, his marriage is falling apart, and that the new woman may be pregnant.

As such, spying on metadata is arguably more intrusive of our privacy than spying on content.

Get it?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:

Posted Under