You’ve probably heard politicians or pundits say that “metadata doesn’t matter.” They argue that police and intelligence agencies shouldn’t need probable cause warrants to collect information about our communications. Metadata isn’t all that revealing, they say, it’s just numbers. But the digital metadata trails you leave behind every day say more about you than you can imagine. Now, thanks to two MIT students, you don’t have to imagine—at least with respect to your email.
Deepak Jagdish and Daniel Smilkov’s Immersion program maps your life, using your email account. After you give the researchers access to your email metadata—not the content, just the time and date stamps, and “To” and “Cc” fields—they’ll return to you a series of maps and graphs that will blow your mind.
The program will remind you of former loves, illustrate the changing dynamics of your professional and personal networks over time, mark deaths and transitions in your life, and more. You’ll probably learn something new about yourself, if you study it closely enough. (The students say they delete your data on your command.)
Those who think that what the NSA and other government agencies are doing is no big deal, and no threat to their privacy, simply don’t understand the power of the combination of modern computer technology and metadata.
The claim is made that if these techniques are so powerful, then why didn’t they catch the Tsarnaev brothers before they blew up the Boston Marathon? Well, for one thing, we don’t know for sure that they didn’t. Nobody actually knows what the NSA and its brothers are actually capable of, and they sure as hell aren’t telling us.
Worse yet, far too many people, in my opinion, are perfectly fine with not knowing, and are more than willing to call anybody who does tell us a traitor. Unfortunately for those of us who think the real problem is what the security wizards can, and are, doing to us, it’s hard to know where to start, given how thoroughly every detail of their means, motives, and methods are classified at the highest levels.
So we’re left with, “Well, this is all harmless.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“Because they tell us so.”
In other words, because shut up.