“Metadata” Can Tell the Government More About You Than the Content of Your Phonecalls

Why Should You Care If the Government Spies On Your Metadata?

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

But technology experts say that “metadata” can be more revealing than the content of your actual phone calls.

For example, 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Indeed, the government’s spying on our metadata arguably violates our right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by numerous laws and charters including the U.S. Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and international law, including articles 20 and 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labor Organization.

Remember, a U.S. federal judge found that the statute allowing indefinite detention of Americans without due process has a “chilling effect” on free speech. Top reporters have said that they are less likely to interview controversial people, for fear of being accused of “supporting” terrorists.

Given the insanely broad list of actions and beliefs which may get one labeled as a “potential terrorist” by local, state or federal law enforcement, the free association of Americans is being chilled.   For example, people may be less willing to call  their niece calling to end the Fed, their Occupy-attending aunt, their Tea Party-promoting cousin, their anti-war teacher, or their anti-fracking uncle.

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.

Postscript: The government is – in factgathering content, as well as metadata.

And mass surveillance doesn’t work to keep us safe. It does, however, set up a technological framework allowing for “turnkey tyranny”.

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  • 12 trees

    At some point pattern is substance and there is no real distinction between meta and data. Text and voice are interchangeable. Tone of voice can be analyzed as a pattern. Evaluation can all be done by algorithm, just like in finance, without human contact.

    What we are up against is Inquisition by Algorithm. Punishment can become entirely non-judicial, say for example by cutting off credit card functionality. And all of this can now be done by foreign entities that control the server software and router software behind our social system integration. In a just in time world delay is attack. Constraint of options is attack. Altered flows are weapons — look at Stuxnet, or derivatives, or drinking water, or breathing.

    Traditional concepts of crime and punishment no longer apply, and that cognitive dissonance is being used to tear us apart, limb from limb. As Lewis Mumford once noted, the original American assembly line was actually a disassembly line at the Chicago stockyards, a building where animals would walk to the top on their own power and then be slaughtered gradually on a long conveyor headed down, propelled engineless by their own weight. We are so self-elevated.

    Certainly we are all Palestinians now, but beyond that, we are all Cathars. They were the first victims of the original Inquisition. They were the first modern people — religious freedom, rights for women, music, arts, wealth created in harmony with the land. And they were slaughtered to the very last one. Cuidado!

  • HeadOver

    20% overhead for indexes is a gross understatement. An index can add anything from the size of the indexed column plus overhead for the management structures (e.g. B-Tree) of the index itself, to many times the size the column indexed in the case of trigram- or other specialized indexes used for full text search and other more exotic applications. This is applies equally to relational databases and to the newfangled NoSQL databases which are used in this case, plus, data is often replicated many times for reasons ranging from inefficiency to security to performance.

    A more realistic yet still very conservative estimate would be to add 2x-3x (200% – 300%) to the size of the data for the indexes of a real-world application, and another 5x for potential replicas of the data, to have an approx volume estimate.

  • gozounlimited

    Parents Of Slain Navy SEAL Join class-action lawsuit against the Obama administration; Tapping Sounds On Phone, Got Strange Texts After Son’s Death…

    Strange claims he heard tapping noises while on the phone and he says he started getting odd texts shortly after his son’s death.

    “I called Verizon, ‘I have a text 001 and 002’ and I called them up and I said ‘who’s this?’ and they said it’s somebody listening in from the United States, and someone from Afghanistan,” Strange explained.

    read here: http://deadlinelive.info/2013/06/12/parents-of-slain-navy-seal-join-class-action-lawsuit-against-the-obama-administration-tapping-sounds-on-phone-got-strange-texts-after-sons-death/

    • gozounlimited

      NSA Chief Testifies at Cybersecurity Hearing

      NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander is one of the witnesses at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on enduring cybersecurity threats. He takes questions on recent leaks revealing the extent of domestic phone surveillance by the NSA…… see here: http://www.c-span.org/

      • gozounlimited

        I found it interesting that during the wrap up of the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), put the pending Atlantic Coast Derecho(s) in the category of cyber security attacks on infrastructure. Derechos are damaging straight-line wind gusts, that can and will in this case, cause large hail and tornadoes. Maybe now that Maryland is threatened, Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski is getting hip to weather weaponization and how it can be used to literally destroy infrastructure …..like in OK, NY, NJ, etc. As far as us folks out here know ….. the only advanced society that practices the weaponization of weather …. is the US.

        After burning up land, animal, and mammal in the West, dry air that was geoengineered (during the weekend) off the West Coast, is now creating more severe weather as the dry air smashes into a cold air mass from the North and moisture from the South over the Midwest and East Coast. http://www.accuweather.com/en/us/national/satellite-wv …… The question for Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski is ….. Who geoengineered the pending Derecho? Are we under attack, or are we doing it to ourselves? … Is part of the 13 billion the committee is ready to appropriate to the NSA on June 22, 2013 going to rebuild your antiquated Cyber Security infrastructure? Is that the plan?…… we can only guess……

      • Robert

        Hello,the really Top secret agencies are the ones Nobody “Knows”about.And there are those who know the Truth,being the CIA ,NSA,and the remaining 10 agencies.These are the only known ones.As for the real reason being,Monitored,is so beyond belief,let me explain.First of all,the ex CIA operative Chase Brandon,clearly stated he,the operative, saw with his own eyes,proof of an Alein crashed craft,in the year 1947.This is the infamous Area 51.As for an indepth view of them,this Intel is on the net,titled,Robert Brule and the CIA.

  • gozounlimited

    But they can’t interpret dreams …… Chief Golden Light Eagle Shares His Dream of President Obama

    see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=sywLXEPdVNY&NR=1

  • Jason

    This is nuts!! Check out exactly what your government is up to… they are actually recording every letter and word we type…!!!


  • Jason

    This is nuts!! Check out exactly what your government is up to… they are actually recording every letter and word we type…!!!