02 July 2013

When someone says its "just metadata"...

Some discussions of Snowden's NSA revelations offer reassurance that the information collected is "only metadata," arguing that the data are only used to find patterns and trends and that personal details are not retrievable.

German Green Party politician Malte Spitz has reported in the New York Times his experience in retrieving his own metadata:
In May 2010, I received a brown envelope. In it was a CD with an encrypted file containing six months of my life. Six months of metadata, stored by my cellphone provider, T-Mobile. This list of metadata contained 35,830 records...

The truth is that phone companies have this data on every customer. I got mine because, in 2009, I filed a suit against T-Mobile for the release of all the data on me that had been gathered and stored... All of this data had to be kept so that law enforcement agencies could gain access to it. That meant that the metadata of 80 million Germans was being stored, without any concrete suspicions and without cause...

Together with Zeit Online, the online edition of the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit, I published an infographic of six months of my life for all to see. With these 35,830 pieces of data, you can follow my travels across Germany, you can see when I went to sleep and woke up, a trail further enriched with public information from my social networking sites: six months of my life viewable for everybody to see what exactly is possible with “just metadata.” 

Three weeks ago, when the news broke about the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata in the United States, I knew exactly what it meant. My records revealed the movements of a single individual; now imagine if you had access to millions of similar data sets. You could easily draw maps, tracing communication and movement. You could see which individuals, families or groups were communicating with one another. You could identify any social group and determine its major actors. 

All of this is possible without knowing the specific content of a conversation, just technical information — the sender and recipient, the time and duration of the call and the geolocation data. 
I can't embed the infographic, which is here.


  1. You must have missed Kieran Healey's essay on identifying Paul Revere as the most connected man in colonial Boston, simply by analyzing group memberships and associations.

  2. Three things:

    First, I have heard that Snowden JOINED the NSA so he could steal this stuff.

    Second, Russia said that they would give Snowden asylum, IF he stopped releasing stuff, and he said no.

    Third, people are so shocked at what the Government is doing in this area, but they always forget that this stuff is coming from private companies, who record a LOT more stuff and in a lot more detail. There are so many citizens of the United States that the Government cannot record everything. Private companies though are only concerned about a small percentage of the US population (at most around 10%, and usually closer to, or less then 1%), and so they can gather more information about a smaller number of people. I would much rather have the Government gather this data, rather then private companies, because with private companies they are only concerned about themselves, and to the devil with everyone and everything else, but on the other hand, the Government is at least concerned about the maximum number of people within the nation.

  3. @DaBris: Yes, unchecked government power is always the best thing for all citizens. I can't think of any instances in history where an unchecked government agency used its power in ways that harmed one or more of its citizens, can you?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...