Skip to comments.Metadata = Surveillance
Posted on 03/15/2014 12:10:48 PM PDT by zeugma
Ever since reporters began publishing stories about NSA activities, based on documents provided by Edward Snowden, we've been repeatedly assured by government officials that it's "only metadata." This might fool the average person, but it shouldn't fool those of us in the security field. Metadata equals surveillance data, and collecting metadata on people means putting them under surveillance.
An easy thought experiment demonstrates this. Imagine that you hired a private detective to eavesdrop on a subject. That detective would plant a bug in that subject's home, office, and car. He would eavesdrop on his computer. He would listen in on that subject's conversations, both face to face and remotely, and you would get a report on what was said in those conversations. (This is what President Obama repeatedly reassures us isn't happening with our phone calls. But am I the only one who finds it suspicious that he always uses very specific words? "The NSA is not listening in on your phone calls." This leaves open the possibility that the NSA is recording, transcribing, and analyzing your phone calls -- and very occasionally reading them. This is far more likely to be true, and something a pedantically minded president could claim he wasn't lying about.)
Now imagine that you asked that same private detective to put a subject under constant surveillance. You would get a different report, one that included things like where he went, what he did, who he spoke to -- and for how long -- who he wrote to, what he read, and what he purchased. This is all metadata, data we know the NSA is collecting. So when the president says that it's only metadata, what you should really hear is that we're all under constant and ubiquitous surveillance.
What's missing from much of the discussion about the NSA's activities is what they're doing with all of this surveillance data. The newspapers focus on what's being collected, not on how it's being analyzed -- with the singular exception of the Washington Post story on cell phone location collection. By their nature, cell phones are tracking devices. For a network to connect calls, it needs to know which cell the phone is located in. In an urban area, this narrows a phone's location to a few blocks. GPS data, transmitted across the network by far too many apps, locates a phone even more precisely. Collecting this data in bulk, which is what the NSA does, effectively puts everyone under physical surveillance.
This is new. Police could always tail a suspect, but now they can tail everyone -- suspect or not. And once they're able to do that, they can perform analyses that weren't otherwise possible. The Washington Post reported two examples. One, you can look for pairs of phones that move toward each other, turn off for an hour or so, and then turn themselves back on while moving away from each other. In other words, you can look for secret meetings. Two, you can locate specific phones of interest and then look for other phones that move geographically in synch with those phones. In other words, you can look for someone physically tailing someone else. I'm sure there are dozens of other clever analyses you can perform with a database like this. We need more researchers thinking about the possibilities. I can assure you that the world's intelligence agencies are conducting this research.
How could a secret police use other surveillance databases: everyone's calling records, everyone's purchasing habits, everyone's browsing history, everyone's Facebook and Twitter history? How could these databases be combined in interesting ways? We need more research on the emergent properties of ubiquitous electronic surveillance.
We can't protect against what we don't understand. And whatever you think of the NSA or the other 5-Eyes countries, these techniques aren't solely theirs. They're being used by many countries to intimidate and control their populations. In a few years, they'll be used by corporations for psychological manipulation -- persuasion or advertising -- and even sooner by cybercriminals for more illicit purposes.
This essay previously appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of IEEE Security and Privacy.
This study of cellphone meta-data demonstrates the point nicely.
So does this amicus brief I signed in the ACLU v. Clapper case.
Of course it is.
I’d just note that aviation experts are presently going thru the limited metadata from Flight 370 trying to figure out what happened to it.
The insidious part is that they keep the database and NSA can go back and query it any time they wish without even the fig leaf of a FISA warrant. Telephone companies also keep this metadata, but NSA would have to execute a warrant every time they wanted the records of a specific target number.
Hypothetical: Find out what Chief Justice Roberts' cell phone number is. Run a query in your private database, and find out he calls a specific number at 2 am on Saturday nights. Look up the owner of that number and determine it belongs to a known call girl. Send an anonymous letter to Justice Roberts with a hint that if a certain Obamacare decision doesn't go a certain way, some information may get leaked out to the press.
Why do they want to do that?
What could social networks be used for in the hands of government? Consider:
How will such capabilities be used now?
How They Hunt
Is it already too late?...
"If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology. Sen. Frank Church (D) on Meet the Press regarding the NSA 1975
I dont want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.
They took me down the grading station, - Year 3,000 Blues, Alvin Lee, &ccopyright;1970 Chrys-A-Lee Music Ltd.
And they classified me zed;
'Cause of over-population
They told me that I would soon be dead.
But I slipped out of the force field
And hid beneath the mono-rail;
But the automatic blood hounds,
Lord they're soon hot a-long my trail
Now if I had been a scholar with computer workin' hard,
Then my molecular structure would not be on the grader's card.
So I know that they will get me, put my index in the brain;
Then the atoms of my body - will be disposed of, Lordy, down the drain.
and let’s not forget smart meters tell people what you’re up to, that you’re home, they can even tell if you flush a toilet versus take a shower.
Meta-data nonsense .... they are collecting everything including the content. They didn’t build the multi-billion dollar storage facility in Utah to save meta-data.