The Truth About Metadata

The ACLU has a post today showing just how much metadata reveals about your life and associations.

Why this is important: In the attempt to justify the NSA surveillance program, the President and some in Congress resort to claims like "It's just metadata, not content."

"This is just metadata," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein assured the American people, referring to the NSA's bulk collection of Americans call records. "There is no content involved." President Obama and his national security officials have made similar assurances.

Using a program called Immersion, developed by MIT Media Lab, he reviews almost 9 years of his own emails. Immersion examines the From, To, Cc and Timestamp fields-- from a Gmail account and visualizes it.


When visualized and analyzed over time, my data reveals my family members--who are all tightly grouped and linked together--and those people who I am, or was, closest to in each phase of my private and professional life. All of my various work colleagues are networked together as well as my many circles of friends, tethered together around high school, grad school, different work places, and even where I've lived. It's easy to tell which woman became my wife, when we met, and how our relationship grew stronger over time. By using Immersion's time scroll, I can go back in time, find my wife, and watch as her speck balloons into the biggest orb in my interconnected sea of circles.

The data visualization also shows potential discord over time, such as friends who have either become acquaintances or even possibly enemies.

The reality is metadata can provide the Government with much more information about you than content. Bottom line:

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.

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    Exactly right (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by ruffian on Mon Jul 29, 2013 at 08:55:52 PM EST
    I think of how many of my calls, IMs and emails are solely for the purpose of making a connection, or establishing whereabouts. The content is nearly meaningless half the time.

    The content is nearly meaningless... (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by unitron on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 04:11:09 AM EST
    ...but as they say, context is everything.

    One of the other truths about metadata (5.00 / 2) (#12)
    by Anne on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 10:00:24 AM EST
    is that a lot of companies and firms are already dealing with metadata issues: documents of all kinds, delivered electronically, can be a treasure trove of data that isn't obvious from the document itself.  

    Little did people know that the recipient of the document could gain access to anything more than what they could see if they printed it out.  But you can get access to things like who worked on the document, who else it was sent to, the changes that were made to it, hidden notes and comments - and much, much more.  You can only imagine how damaging that could be in litigation - the term "smoking gun" comes to mind.

    My firm has a metadata cleaning program that removes all of that kind of information, and we are strongly urged to use it when sending anything electronically.

    Yep (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by jbindc on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 10:24:42 AM EST
    As I said before - I do this for a living.

    I review documents in preparation for litigation, and we look at things like the Viewer view, the Native view, and the Extracted Text view.  We check the metadata - and oddly enough, for the same document, they don't necessarily have the same exact information.

    This has been a big deal for lawyers, so THEY don't disclose metadata, but potential litigants should know that metadata IS discoverable information.

    Consequently, metadata is becoming an increasingly important part of electronic discovery. Recent changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure make metadata routinely discoverable as part of civil litigation. Parties to litigation are required to maintain and produce metadata as part of discovery, and spoliation of metadata can lead to sanctions. They may negotiate to exclude metadata from produced documents in the obligatory meet and confer under the new rules, but without an agreement to that effect, the parties must produce the metadata.

    What is the program? (none / 0) (#35)
    by republicratitarian on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 08:02:16 PM EST
    Or can you say?

    The True Truth About Metadata (5.00 / 2) (#14)
    by Edger on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 10:32:40 AM EST
    Around the mediascape, we hear a lot of talk about Edward Snowden being a criminal, and needing to return home to face "justice." But what about the possibility that people like Snowden actually are the forces of justice, while the criminals are the ones in charge of the system?

    Not criminals, you say? How about creating or exacerbating "security threats," then cruelly panicking the public into approving increasingly intrusive measures to bolster security? Isn't that something like mobsters who throw a brick through a store window, then offer to provide "protection" against future brick-throwers?
    The protectors, having created a vast, self-perpetuating bureaucracy, are not really protecting us so much as they are protecting themselves, their paychecks, their own power.
    -Spying on us is big business. We're so stupid that we actually pay our tax dollars to have the surveillance contracted out to private companies that are getting rich off of sticking their noses in our business. Fully 60 percent of "intelligence" work is now subcontracted to the "private sector."  Do you have any idea where all that money goes or what it buys? I don't. And neither, based on reports of massive waste, corruption and incompetence, do the "insiders."
    Perhaps we get what we deserve. But perhaps we can change that equation.

    If people can get all worked up about fictional horror stories on Netflix, maybe they can be made to care about the Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue, Reality Version.

    --- Is Snowden the Criminal--or is it the System?

    Metadata (5.00 / 4) (#18)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 11:45:04 AM EST
    The simple fact is that if it wasn't extremely useful, the government would not collect it for the purpose of 'protecting' us.

    It does not make sense on any level for them to: keep it a secret, burn bridge after bridge trying to secure the leaker, and spend all this energy to ensure it doesn't stop, if it's no big deal as Obama has claimed.  

    One does not force the President of Bolivia's plane to make an unscheduled stop in hopes of finding a leaker over programs that aren't a big fricken deal.

    They fact that our government is going to these ends is all one should need to know how much information meta data can provide.

    My 4th of July comic is very on topic (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by Dadler on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 11:53:16 AM EST
    Uncle Sam's index digit smells really bad. (link)

    This one, too. (link)

    And this one, three. (link)


    MSN and the NSA: bosom buddies (5.00 / 1) (#25)
    by shoephone on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 10:18:06 PM EST
    Tomorrow's Guardian article by Greeenwald, et al, regarding the intimate relationship between Microsoft and the NSA spying programs.

    A good portion of employees at Microsoft already detest Steve Ballmer. I keep wondering when he sings his swan song. Are we there yet?

    Your link goes to a story from July 11th; (5.00 / 1) (#26)
    by Anne on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 06:53:46 AM EST
    was this the article you intended to link to, or is there another more current one?  It seems like it is the one you meant, but I looked at Glenn's site and the Guardian front page, and didn't see anything new for today.

    It's chilling, the whole thing.  I feel like the NSA is one of those weird parasites that gains entrance to your body through your nose or your ear and then takes up residence in your brain.

    I'm waiting for the day when it's revealed that the NSA is planting subliminal messages in our communications, with the eventual goal of making us all into compliant pod people...there was a time when that would have sounded like a plot for a sci-fi movie - now it's just way to easy to imagine it as a Frontline expose...


    But here is a link to the Greenwald (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by Anne on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 09:08:00 AM EST
    post that just went up this morning.

    The extent to which the NSA is collecting data gets bigger and bigger and bigger with each reveal.

    An excerpt:

    A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

    The NSA boasts in training materials that the program, called XKeyscore, is its "widest-reaching" system for developing intelligence from the internet.


    XKeyscore, the documents boast, is the NSA's "widest reaching" system developing intelligence from computer networks - what the agency calls Digital Network Intelligence (DNI). One presentation claims the program covers "nearly everything a typical user does on the internet", including the content of emails, websites visited and searches, as well as their metadata.

    Analysts can also use XKeyscore and other NSA systems to obtain ongoing "real-time" interception of an individual's internet activity.

    Under US law, the NSA is required to obtain an individualized Fisa warrant only if the target of their surveillance is a 'US person', though no such warrant is required for intercepting the communications of Americans with foreign targets. But XKeyscore provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst.

    It's a long, long article, and it's filled with screen shots of training manuals and other information that just makes my blood run cold.

    NSA, of course, denies that it uses this program for anything other than "legitimate foreign intelligence targets."


    "including the content of emails" (5.00 / 1) (#30)
    by Mr Natural on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 11:32:02 AM EST
    Gee whiz, kiddies, that leaves us with two choices.  Senator Diane Feinstein (D, Ca) and her crony, Representative Mike Rogers (R,MI), chairs, respectively, of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, are either credulous dupes or liars.

    Oh, I see you're right on the date (none / 0) (#31)
    by shoephone on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 11:42:33 AM EST
    I think I was too tired last night to mark that. On my way to read the newest article (the one which makes clear why the NSA is suddenly declassifying documents...)

    Whew. Just read the article. (none / 0) (#32)
    by shoephone on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 12:54:44 PM EST
    We are basically slaves to a criminal secret government, which operates with impunity.

    Kinda makes you wonder how there (none / 0) (#33)
    by Anne on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 01:16:59 PM EST
    haven't been hundreds of Edward Snowdens, doesn't it?

    Of the thousands and thousands of people NSA employs, either directly, or through contractors, one person stepped forward.  One (well, there was William Binney, but that was a while ago and not on this scale).

    So, everyone else is just fine with it?  

    That might be the scariest part.


    The others have gotten (none / 0) (#34)
    by shoephone on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 01:26:40 PM EST
    sucked into the Borg, while Snowden's importance is growing by the day.

    So, yes, it's sensible to ask how many NSA "analysts" are scavenging through every ounce of our communications, without any warrants -- without any oversight at all?


    Amazing Timing on This Post (none / 0) (#2)
    by Visteo1 on Mon Jul 29, 2013 at 09:58:06 PM EST
    I just finished googling my real name, not Visteo. Your article had me check my online alias for grins and giggles.  I can be found.  The two have not been associated.

    I did find something interesting.  Apparently I may have a relationship with my ex-wife's, husband's ex-wife.

    If you want it private, keep it private using a secure connection....and hope a hacker doesn't get to it because of vulnerable security.  There are those in the private sector that ARE the REAL Big Brother.

    I wish I had saved the link that scared the socks off me on what Google and others are collecting on us.

    Well here is something less scary that I just found...

    http://endoftheamericandream.com/archives/10-reasons-why-nothing-you-do-on-the-internet-will-ever-be -private-again

    Oh, so you want to right the power (none / 0) (#3)
    by Dadler on Mon Jul 29, 2013 at 11:35:26 PM EST
    Well then, We The Power will proceed to find every bit of embarrassing electronic activity you've put out there, and we'll expose you as the addicted to porn hater of all things American and good who also orders cheap meds from foreign countries, and who also makes socialist comments on obscure websites under screen names, etc etc etc..."Is this really the person you want in power?"

    But that's just me, I'm sure the government will always act in my best interests as a free American with rights.

    Sure I do.

    FIGHT the power, that subject line shoulda read (none / 0) (#4)
    by Dadler on Mon Jul 29, 2013 at 11:35:48 PM EST
    Sigh, sigh, sigh, sigh, sigh...

    It needs righting as well. (5.00 / 3) (#6)
    by unitron on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 04:16:59 AM EST
    "Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right."

    --Carl Schurz


    My favorite park in New York city... (none / 0) (#15)
    by Dadler on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 11:17:25 AM EST
    ...is Carl Shurz park on the upper east side.

    In Frankfurter Allgemeine (none / 0) (#8)
    by Nemi on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 07:09:20 AM EST
    author and internet-observer Evgeny Morozov gives a European's point of view on 'information consumerism' and surveillance.

    First of all, many Europeans are finally grasping, to their great dismay, that the word "cloud" in "cloud computing" is just a euphemism for "some dark bunker in Idaho or Utah."

    He argues among other things that the digital world really isn't all that different from the real world as we are often made to believe, exemplified in this description of Edward Snowden's flight:

    There's no separate realm that gives rise to a new brand of "digital" power; it's one world, one power, with America at the helm. Google's CEO Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, a former senior official at the State Department who went to work for Google, had the misfortune to publish a book that assured us that this was no longer the case - "The New Digital Age" - just a few months before the Snowden revelations. Rare is a book that ages so quickly. Look no further than "Internet asylum seekers" in its index. "A dissident who can't live freely under an autocratic Internet and is refused access to other states' Internets will choose to seek physical asylum in another country to gain virtual freedom on its Internet," they claim. "Being granted virtual asylum could be a significant first step toward physical asylum, a sign of trust without the full commitment."

    The sheer naivete of statements like this - predicated on the assumption that somehow one can "live" online the way one lives in the physical world and that virtual politics works on a logic different from regular politics - is illustrated by the sad case of Edward Snowden, a man with a noble mission and awful trip-planning skills. If it's "virtual asylum" that Snowden is after, he can get his dose of "virtual freedom" in Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. Somehow - silly him? - "virtual freedom" doesn't seem to be enough and it hasn't occurred to him - perhaps, he has not read the book yet? - to seek "virtual asylum." Bolivia's Evo Morales, stranded in Austria on suspicion that his plane had been carrying Snowden, would have had a good laugh had he stumbled upon "The New Digital Age" in a Vienna airport bookstore. Perhaps, had Morales only tweeted harder, none of this would have happened.

    Evgeny Morozov (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by Nemi on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 07:10:37 AM EST
    also argues, that building software that is 'insecure by design' (Microsoft) helps authoritarian governments spying on their own citizens:

    Fine, Big Data - and big bugs in our software and hardware - are here to help. But, lest we forget, they would also help the governments of China and Iran to predict and catch future dissidents. We can't be building insecure communication infrastructure and expect that only Western governments would profit from it.

    And that we 'the people', so to speak, actually want and freely chose this 'commodificaton of information':

    Such commodification is not happening against the wishes of ordinary citizens but because this is what ordinary citizen-consumer want. Look no further than Google's email and Amazon's Kindle to see that no one is forced to use them: people do it willingly. Forget laws: it's only through political activism and a robust intellectual critique of the very ideology of "information consumerism" that underpins such aspirations that we would be able to avert the inevitable disaster."

    Much more at The Price of Hypocrisy. It's long - and very US-critical! - but worth the read.


    Thanks for the link (5.00 / 2) (#16)
    by Dadler on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 11:23:16 AM EST
    I think "Europe" is living in delusion tho; their governments, I have no doubt, are doing exactly the same thing.

    Tho Europeans, I must say... (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by Dadler on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 11:24:44 AM EST
    ...take to the streets with much more regular and democratic gusto than Americans, by far. And it gets them something. But not enough. Not yet.

    Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere (none / 0) (#11)
    by Michael Masinter on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 09:20:15 AM EST
    Kieran Healy wrote a brilliant example of how, using metadata available in 1772, one could identify Paul Revere as a critical person in the nascent revolutionary movement.  The piece is well worth a read.

    I am less concerned (none / 0) (#29)
    by Mikado Cat on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 11:27:39 AM EST
    about the collection of data, as I am about the tracking of access and use of the data. I work with massive amounts of confidential data, and there are reasonable ways of keeping it both readily available to authorized users, and invisible and totally inaccessible to others, or limited to aggregate data.

    Remember when caller ID came out?

    It could have been such a handy thing for everybody, and it was demonized and made fairly useless.

    Like it or not we are on the cusp of a huge tide of more data being collected. Rather than stand in the water at the beach and yell stop to the ocean, we should be looking at data management controls with transparency and oversight.