Friday, June 07, 2013

what's the matter with metadata?

newyorker | Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from liberal Northern California and the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, assured the public earlier today that the government’s secret snooping into the phone records of Americans was perfectly fine, because the information it obtained was only “meta,” meaning it excluded the actual content of the phone conversations, providing merely records, from a Verizon subsidiary, of who called whom when and from where. In addition, she said in a prepared statement, the “names of subscribers” were not included automatically in the metadata (though the numbers, surely, could be used to identify them). “Our courts have consistently recognized that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in this type of metadata information and thus no search warrant is required to obtain it,” she said, adding that “any subsequent effort to obtain the content of an American’s communications would require a specific order from the FISA court.”

She said she understands privacy—“that’s why this is carefully done”—and noted that eleven special federal judges, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret, had authorized the vast intelligence collection. A White House official made the same points to reporters, saying, “The order reprinted overnight does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls” and was subject to “a robust legal regime.” The gist of the defense was that, in contrast to what took place under the Bush Administration, this form of secret domestic surveillance was legitimate because Congress had authorized it, and the judicial branch had ratified it, and the actual words spoken by one American to another were still private. So how bad could it be?

The answer, according to the mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau, whom I interviewed while reporting on the plight of the former N.S.A. whistleblower Thomas Drake and who is also the author of “Surveillance or Security?,” is that it’s worse than many might think.

“The public doesn’t understand,” she told me, speaking about so-called metadata. “It’s much more intrusive than content.” She explained that the government can learn immense amounts of proprietary information by studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content.”


Dale Asberry said...

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ken said...

The order reprinted overnight does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls” and was subject to “a robust legal regime.”

No need to listen to get the content of course. I am sure the government has a better voice to text translator then Comcast has. Somebody orally leaves a message for me and a pretty accurate text is available for me to view at my comcast account. I suspect one could turn anyone's phone conversations into text and data base them and search it's content whenever the government or whoever assumes control of the data thinks it could be useful information for whatever the present or future objectives might be.

CNu said...

Ken, for 99.9% of intelligence and law enforcement purposes, there's genuinely no need to get at the content of a discussion at all. The amount of forensically relevant information obtainable simply from the metadata is overwhelming.

Dale Asberry said...


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