Yes, Big Metadata Analysis Is Harmful to You and Other Free Things


Graphs by MIT Students Show the Enormously Intrusive Nature of Metadata | American Civil Liberties Union

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.

About Bill Quick

I am a small-l libertarian. My primary concern is to increase individual liberty as much as possible in the face of statist efforts to restrict it from both the right and the left. If I had to sum up my beliefs as concisely as possible, I would say, "Stay out of my wallet and my bedroom," "your liberty stops at my nose," and "don't tread on me." I will believe that things are taking a turn for the better in America when married gays are able to, and do, maintain large arsenals of automatic weapons, and tax collectors are, and do, not.


Yes, Big Metadata Analysis Is Harmful to You and Other Free Things — 2 Comments

  1. I would imagine using metadata to track someone already on the radar is easy. For instance, a Tea Party member who applies for tax exempt status for a like minded group they are setting up.

    Actually identifying a suspected Muslim terrorist would involve actual work first, which is hard as there may be thousands or tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of potential suspects. There may even be profiling involved and that would of course be verboten.

    That’s all before metadata can be useful.

  2. Thats just not true, kenny, and represents a failure of imagination.

    Big computing power can create individual email dossiers on hundreds of millions of people. Metadata could identify these dossiers by individual name, and then run more investigations to create maps of the connections. And that is just one aspect of metadata mining.

    Add in all the sorts of things that Google does about you, personally (which the government is also capable of doing) you begin to get a picture of what they can really do – observe an entire nation in near realtime in all its individual and group interactions.

    If we’re not quite there yet, we will be shortly. But I think we’re already there.

Leave a Reply