Why the Collection of Metadata is a Very, Very Big Deal

Some people seemed strangely relieved in the wake of the NSA spying scandal when Obama said “no one is listening to your phone calls.” First of all, while they are clearly not listening to everyone’s phone calls, they certainly are listening to certain people’s calls and that isn’t acceptable in a free society.  Second of all, it’s pretty obvious that the one reason they aren’t listening to everyone’s calls is because it wouldn’t be practical or effective.  As Matt Blaze notes in this great article from Wired, the government isn’t primarily tracking metadata rather than content in an attempt to protect privacy, but rather because metadata is the most efficient and effective way in which to spy on and preempt domestic political dissent.  From Wired:

We now know that every day, U.S. phone companies quietly send the government a list of who called whom and when — “telephony metadata” — for every call made on their networks, because of a secret order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It turns out that this has been going on for seven years (and was even reported by USA Today then); the difference now is that the government — uncharacteristically for such a secret intelligence operation — quickly acknowledged the authenticity of the leaked order and the existence of the metadata collection program.

Should we be worried? At least “nobody is listening to our telephone calls” (so the president himself assured us). People breathed a sigh of relief since first learning of the surveillance because surely there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to such seemingly innocuous information — it’s just metadata, after all. Phew!

With today’s communications technology, is metadata really less revealing than content? Especially when we’re dealing with metadata at the scale that we now know the NSA and FBI are receiving?

Because at such a scale, people’s intuition about the relative invasiveness of content and metadata starts to fail them. Phone records can actually be more revealing than content when someone has as many records and as complete a set of them as the NSA does.

Metadata, on the other hand, is ideally suited to automated analysis by computer. Having more of it just makes it the analysis more accurate, easier, and better. So while the NSA quickly drowns in data with more voice content, it just builds up a clearer and more complete picture of us with more metadata.

Metadata is our context. And that can reveal far more about us — both individually and as groups — than the words we speak.

The better understood the patterns of a particular group’s behavior, the more useful it is. This makes using metadata to identify lone-wolf Al Qaeda sympathizers (a tiny minority about whose social behavior relatively little is known) a lot harder than, say, rooting out Tea Partiers or Wall Street Occupiers, let alone the people with whom we share our beds.

It is, in effect, a National Relationship Database.

Full article here.

In Liberty,

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