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Why The “It’s Just Metadata” Argument Is False

One of the common defenses that has been trotted out over the past week to push back against criticism of the National Security Agency’s practice of collecting phone records for later review has been that all the NSA is collecting is so-called “metadata.” Essentially, this argument tells us not to worry because the NSA isn’t actually listening in to our phone calls, it’s just collecting records of who talked to who, when and for how long. However, as former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau told the New Yorker, metadata can tell analysts much more than even a wiretap can at times:

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.”

For example, she said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” … Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint

(….)

Metadata, Landau noted, can also reveal sensitive political information, showing, for instance, if opposition leaders are meeting, who is involved, where they gather, and for how long. Such data can reveal, too, who is romantically involved with whom, by tracking the locations of cell phones at night. (emphasis added)

The New York Times’ Quentin Hardy expands on that argument:

For some communications, metadata matters more than content. “A call to a suicide hot line, Alcoholics Anonymous, or a gay sex chat room at 2 a.m. are all more sensitive” than the actual message, said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. “You can text political donations. The metadata shows your political leanings, the content just shows the amount you gave. Calling a cell tower away from my house in the middle of the night indicates I’m not sleeping at home.”

“Metadata is the least protected form of communications information, and that is a shame,” he said. “You just have to say it’s important to an ongoing investigation.”

To place the information in a more historical context, Kieran Healy takes us back to the years before American Revolution:

London, 1772.

I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications”. I will show how we can use this “metadata” to find key persons involved in terrorist groups operating within the Colonies at the present time. I shall also endeavour to show how these methods work in what might be called a relationalmanner.

The analysis in this report is based on information gathered by our field agent Mr David Hackett Fischer and published in an Appendix to his lengthy report to the government. As you may be aware, Mr Fischer is an expert and respected field Agent with a broad and deep knowledge of the colonies. I, on the other hand, have made my way from Ireland with just a little quantitative training—I placed several hundred rungs below the Senior Wrangler during my time at Cambridge—and I am presently employed as a junior analytical scribe at ye olde National Security Administration. Sorry, I mean the Royal Security Administration. And I should emphasize again that I know nothing of current affairs in the colonies. However, our current Eighteenth Century beta of PRISM has been used to collect and analyze information on more than two hundred and sixty persons (of varying degrees of suspicion) belonging variously to seven different organizations in the Boston area.

Healy then goes through a detailed analysis of actual British intelligence that had been gathered regarding the relationships among certain people in the Boston area in the early 1770s, and comes to this conclusion:

From a table of membership in different groups we have gotten a picture of a kind of social network between individuals, a sense of the degree of connection between organizations, and some strong hints of who the key players are in this world. And all this—all of it!—from the merest sliver of metadata about a single modality of relationship between people. I do not wish to overstep the remit of my memorandum but I must ask you to imagine what might be possible if we were but able to collect information on very many more people, and also synthesizeinformation from different kinds of ties between people! For the simple methods I have described are quite generalizable in these ways, and their capability only becomes more apparent as the size and scope of the information they are given increases. We would not need to know what was being whispered between individuals, only that they were connected in various ways. The analytical engine would do the rest! I daresay the shape of the real structure of social relations would emerge from our calculations gradually, first in outline only, but eventually with ever-increasing clarity and, at last, in beautiful detail—like a great, silent ship coming out of the gray New England fog.

Essentially, using nothing more than information about who knew whom and who else those people interacted with, you can construct someone’s entire social network. That’s something that can be used to track down terrorist cells and even members of drug gang and organized crime families. It’s also something that could theoretically be used to track down a group of government dissidents or people who would simply choose to keep their social relationships private. And you can do all of that without actually listening in on any of their conversations using the right statistical analysis tool. So, the “it’s just metadata” argument is invalid because it assumes, incorrectly, that metadata itself isn’t important. Indeed, it may be the most important information of all.

H/T: Kathy Gill and Tom Levenson

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. stonetools says:

    Well, of course, metadata is useful. That’s why the government (and private companies, BTW) want to collect it. The question is, whether you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in it. SCOTUS has definitely said no, for some kinds of metadata. That case (Smith v. Maryland) in fact draws a sharp line between content and metadata. I think this Supreme Court is likely to uphold that line.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  2. john personna says:

    I think we got all this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Tillman says:

    So, the “it’s just metadata” argument is invalid because it assumes, incorrectly, that metadata itself isn’t important. Indeed, it may be the most important information of all.

    The people making this argument are pushing against the widespread misunderstanding that the government is literally wiretapping millions of Americans.

    Has the Average Joe ever had an expectation of privacy concerning metadata in the past?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  4. john personna says:

    @Tillman:

    The average Joe probably still has a higher expectation of privacy than he has in fact.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. Anderson says:

    “A call to a suicide hot line, Alcoholics Anonymous, or a gay sex chat room at 2 a.m. are all more sensitive” than the actual message

    They’re more sensitive precisely because they invite the worst possible inference. Knowing that one guy talked to a suspected terrorist is the kind of thing that led us to ship innocent people off to Syrian torturers. Hearing the conversation, which would show innocuous content subject to outside verification, is less suggestive.

    Not arguing *for* surveilling content, of course.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. mantis says:

    The average Joe is a moron. We can’t wait until every moron understands everything the government does before it does it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  7. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    Are you saying that you fully understand what the government is doing?

    No, I think what you are doing is writing a blank check on the surveillance state, and then asserting that this is somehow an informed decision.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  8. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    Are you saying that you fully understand what the government is doing?

    No, but I’m pretty sick of you constantly and dishonestly trying to put words in my mouth. Respond to what I write, not whatever positions you have invented for me.

    No, I think what you are doing is writing a blank check on the surveillance state, and then asserting that this is somehow an informed decision.

    No, I’m arguing that the ignorance of the general public should not bar the government from doing its job, whether that is law enforcement, building a dam, or collecting taxes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  9. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    Hey, you are the one that just called the average citizen a moron.

    At that point, what respect do you deserve?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  10. Doug, imagine the “average” computer user. Someone around your age, who doesn’t know crap except how to load Excel, and ONLY if Excel’s desktop icon is in the EXACT spot it’s always been in. The kind of person who calls you frantically for help if that icon’s been moved because someone rearranged the icons to sort alphabetically.

    That is the person you’re trying to explain this to, that we’re trying to explain this to. The people who were in that 56% that said “atta boy” to the NSA’s spying program are JFWs: Just Fucking Work. They don’t care about how it happens, they just want things in their life to work. They don’t care that the government is looking at their metadata because they don’t know what metadata is. They don’t care what metadata is. Does her cell work? Does it play Angry Birds? Now you’re talking.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. James Joyner says:

    While I fully concur that “it’s just metadata” is silly–I wrote about it several days ago in a post titled “Big Metadata and Big Government“–the interesting question isn’t whether the information is valuable but how it’s being used. As noted in “FISA, Blanket Searches, and the 4th Amendment,” the law is pretty clear that the NSA can’t use this information to do any of those things.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. *sigh* Doug, can you spare my comment from moderation? Heavens to Betsy, me and my mouth. :(

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Mish says:

    This “reasonable expectation of privacy” argument, SCOTUS sanctioned or not, is incompatible with privacy rights and the 4th Amendment’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure. By tethering privacy to “reasonable expectations,” you effectively tether privacy to government whim. Example: the government puts cameras in everyone’s houses; thus, no one expects privacy–since, in simple point of fact, they would have no privacy in such an event–and when someone says, “Hey, don’t I have a right to privacy here?” some Church of State apologist just says, “Well, you don’t have any ‘reasonable expectation’ of it, so no.”

    See the problem?

    Pretty simple, really.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think you are mixing things up, James.

    The metadata falls under the “no expectation of privacy” sphere, being data that the user “shared” with a 3rd party.

    And so no, I don’t think the NSA is restricted in its use at all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. Rafer Janders says:

    @Tillman:

    Has the Average Joe ever had an expectation of privacy concerning metadata in the past?

    Yes, actually, due to the fact that it was physically impossible for any one agency or party to collect and keep metadata about any one individual. Sure, someone could look at the addresses on the mail people used to send, but before the Internet and mass data mining made these techniques possible, it was far too cumbersome to collect it all, so people did believe that their metadata was essentially private.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    Hey, you are the one that just called the average citizen a moron.

    At that point, what respect do you deserve?

    If you want to use my lack of confidence in the intelligence and awareness of the average citizen as an excuse to lie, feel free. You’re still a liar.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  17. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    Poor you.

    Here I am making the simple argument that in an democracy, citizens should be informed about the extent of domestic surveillance, and should make an informed decision about policy going forward.

    What is your alternative? It can only be that you prefer government elites, in secrecy, to make those decisions for them.

    Those are the logical consequences of your positions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  18. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    Here I am making the simple argument that in an democracy, citizens should be informed about the extent of domestic surveillance, and should make an informed decision about policy going forward.

    I agree with you. Too bad you can’t make that argument without lying about what I say.

    What is your alternative?

    I did not offer an alternative. I merely pointed out that the government must continue to function even if the entire citizenry does not comprehend everything it does.

    It can only be that you prefer government elites, in secrecy, to make those decisions for them.

    Those are the logical consequences of your positions.

    You are completely full of shit. Try to make an honest argument once in a while.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  19. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    When you say this:

    I did not offer an alternative. I merely pointed out that the government must continue to function even if the entire citizenry does not comprehend everything it does.

    It equals this:

    It can only be that you prefer government elites, in secrecy, to make those decisions for them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  20. john personna says:

    (I guess you want to deny the logical consequence of your argument, that citizens are “morons” and “government must function” and so … take the surveillance that you get.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  21. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    It equals this:

    No, it doesn’t, asshole. Just because some citizens cannot be bothered to care or are too stupid to understand some things the government does does not mean I am saying those things should be secret. That doesn’t make the slightest bit of logical sense. It’s just more of you dishonestly inventing arguments for other people. You are a liar.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  22. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    You are backed into a corner and are a bad sport to boot.

    You are miles from your starting argument that everyone just accepted this surveillance state when they picked up their cell phones.

    That argument is toast, with the face/license recognition cameras that you now insist that you knew about all along.

    So you are left with what? You call me names because that’s the only way you can justify the growth of a mostly-secret surveillance state.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  23. john personna says:

    (You certainly cannot begin again, and build a case that this surveillance state is something voters understand and signed onto, before its construction.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  24. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    You are miles from your starting argument that everyone just accepted this surveillance state when they picked up their cell phones.

    That wasn’t my starting argument. You just invented that for me, because you are a liar.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    I notice that you are not making a clean statement of your position, you are just calling names.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    I notice that you are not making a clean statement of your position, you are just calling names.

    My position on what, exactly? There are a lot of issues being discussed. You may wish to talk about a nebulous surveillance state, but I find that unproductive. I prefer to talk about specific actions and their implications. My only position on the topic of this thread is that the government cannot wait for the “average Joe” to understand everything it does before it does it. I think I made this point quite clearly, though you decided to distort it and put words in my mouth anyway.

    I have no argument with Doug’s point that metadata can provide the ability to infer a good deal of information about a subject’s activity than just the phone numbers he/she calls. That’s true. Then again, I’ve never made the “it’s just metadata so it’s no big deal” argument.

    I’m still learning about what exactly the NSA has been doing with this data as more information is being revealed. In general, I think there need to be safeguards over how and why the NSA can access the data involving American citizens, but I’m not opposed to them using it entirely. I like the idea expressed on other threads that the NSA show that the American subjects whose data is being accessed are suspected of engaging in terrorism or espionage activities.

    However, phone call records have been accessible with a subpoena since at least 1979, so I don’t know how one could make the claim that this is a secret or that citizens’ ignorance of this fact is the fault of the government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. john personna says:

    @mantis:

    I see it as a surveillance state because the broad pattern is repeated from small town, through state and federal agencies, and to the NSA.

    Example:

    Obama Admin Gives CIA,NSA,FBI & DHS Complete Access to Your Banking Records

    Example:

    Ohio budget could bring facial-recognition to state’s casinos

    If I am reading you correctly, you think this is more narrowly the NSA, and that they are more narrowly making specific trade-offs about terrorism.

    That isn’t very much the whole picture, is it? That’s not why Ohio wants to ID everyone in a casino.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  28. john personna says:

    (Hence “The average Joe probably still has a higher expectation of privacy than he has in fact.”)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  29. john personna says:
  30. john personna says:

    Cape Girardeau [Missouri] police use cameras to collect license plate numbers

    For the last seven months, a police car with a group of high-speed cameras attached to its roof captures photographs of nearly every vehicle and its license plate along a traveled route. The photographs appear in an instant on a laptop computer inside the car. Each vehicle’s license plate number is sent into a national database that only law enforcement can access, along with the time and location the plate was recorded.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  31. Tillman says:

    @Rafer Janders: But see, and maybe this point is too philosophical, they didn’t believe the data was private before, they just thought no one would expend the effort to look at it in its totality. It was virtually private. You could’ve asked someone in a series of hypotheticals about this and they would’ve said the data wasn’t private, but was too expensive a task to maintain.

    Now, thanks to technology, it isn’t, and people suddenly have privacy concerns. That seems off to me. I’m not saying they agreed to this wholeheartedly, I’m saying they agreed to this without thinking it through.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. Tillman says:

    @john personna:

    What is your alternative? It can only be that you prefer government elites, in secrecy, to make those decisions for them.

    Oh come on, you really are building a strawman here. You lost me on the phrase “in secrecy.”

    First off, in general, I think he’d prefer government elites to make the decisions for us since that’s the entire point of a federal republic with elected representatives. The entire point of having elected representatives is so the Average Joe doesn’t have to concern himself with the responsibilities of government. The people’s decisions are manifested in voting, not on specific laws, but on the people who will draft and review these laws.

    This surveillance regime is what these laws have created, and the elected representatives will hear the people’s will on this one way or another.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  33. Franklin says:

    @mantis: No, I’m arguing that the ignorance of the general public should not bar the government from doing its job, whether that is law enforcement, building a dam, or collecting taxes.

    This isn’t plain old ignorance. The “expectation of privacy” has a lot of legal weight.

    EDIT: apologies if this point has been covered in the existing comments

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  34. Ben Wolf says:

    @john personna: That’s what disingenuous people do. When they can’t hang with a reasoned argument they call names and engage in ad hominem. The irony is they can’t understand doing so is equivalent to screaming I Lost!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  35. [...] Why The “It’s Just Metadata” Argument Is False (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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  36. [...] But this is also, of course, why the public feels that it is a violation of their privacy – and why people are scrambling to insist that it’s not a big deal, because it’s “only” metadata: [...]

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  37. Davebo says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Hate to jump into this but since you did… We can assume that you disagree that the government should be able to take legal actions unless every single American understands those actions, their potential consequences, and approves of them?

    Because by my reading that’s all Mantis was saying should not be required.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  38. john personna says:

    @Davebo:

    Isn’t “every single American” the straw-man?

    Remember, Mantis did not call out the bottom x%, he called out the median, with “The average Joe is a moron. ”

    That certainly strikes at the roots of democracy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  39. john personna says:

    FWIW, I think this NYTimes story is actually related:

    Both trends are real, and they are related. The disruption and decentralization of power coincides with an intense and seemingly unbounded concentration of power. What at first glance looks like a contradiction makes perfect sense once one understands the nature of modern power.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  40. john personna says:

    @Davebo:

    (I should probably say a “bait and switch” argument, rather than a straw-man.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  41. john personna says:

    I think the game is “I’ll say something, but when you call me on what I actually say, I’ll call you a liar.”

    The words “The average Joe is a moron” have meaning.

    Wear it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  42. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    I think the game is “I’ll say something, but when you call me on what I actually say, I’ll call you a liar.”

    Bullshit. I call you on it when you distort what I say or when you just invent positions for me, which you have been doing consistently.

    Remember, Mantis did not call out the bottom x%, he called out the median, with “The average Joe is a moron. ”

    That certainly strikes at the roots of democracy.

    Indeed it does, but I did not just pull that out of my ass. Let’s look at what the average American knows. First, I will refer to a recent Newsweek poll that had Americans take the naturalization citizenship test. Some results:

    – 70% didn’t know that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
    – Sixty-five percent couldn’t figure out that the Constitution was written at the Constitutional Convention.
    – Sixty-three percent got the number of Supreme Court justices wrong.
    – Forty-three percent did not know that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are the Bill of Rights.
    – 35% don’t know in what century the American Revolution took place.

    Conclusion: the average American lacks very basic knowledge of our government and it’s foundations. More from the same survey:

    – Seventy-three percent didn’t know why we fought the Cold War.
    – 59% don’t know that John Boehner (R-Ohio) is the speaker of the House.

    More ignorance of recent events:

    – 42% of Americans are unaware that Obamacare is law (Kaiser survey)
    – 65% of Americans could not name one single Supreme Court justice, and only 1% could name all nine (Findlaw poll)
    – Americans dramatically underestimate the consolidation of wealth to the top in the United States (PPS Study)
    – 90% of Americans think the deficit is growing or staying the same. It’s getting smaller (Bloomberg Poll)

    All of this ignorance deals only with government and history, and I’m not even getting into the appalling stupidity of the American public when it comes to science and technology (or how half of Americans believe in ghosts, etc.)

    This was probably not worth my time to put together, considering you will probably just invent some new strawman and ignore what I have presented, but I don’t say Americans (in the aggregate) are stupid for no reason. There are very good reasons to believe that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  43. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    I think the game is “I’ll say something, but when you call me on what I actually say, I’ll call you a liar.”

    Bullshit. I call you on it when you distort what I say or when you just invent positions for me, which you have been doing consistently.

    Remember, Mantis did not call out the bottom x%, he called out the median, with “The average Joe is a moron. ”

    That certainly strikes at the roots of democracy.

    Indeed it does, but I did not just pull that out of my ass. Let’s look at what the average American knows. First, I will refer to a recent Newsweek poll that had Americans take the naturalization citizenship test. Some results:

    – 70% didn’t know that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
    – Sixty-five percent couldn’t figure out that the Constitution was written at the Constitutional Convention.
    – Sixty-three percent got the number of Supreme Court justices wrong.
    – Forty-three percent did not know that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are the Bill of Rights.
    – 35% don’t know in what century the American Revolution took place.

    Conclusion: the average American lacks very basic knowledge of our government and it’s foundations. More from the same survey:

    – Seventy-three percent didn’t know why we fought the Cold War.
    – 59% don’t know that John Boehner (R-Ohio) is the speaker of the House.

    More ignorance of recent events:

    – 42% of Americans are unaware that Obamacare is law (Kaiser survey)
    – 65% of Americans could not name one single Supreme Court justice, and only 1% could name all nine (Findlaw poll)
    – Americans dramatically underestimate the consolidation of wealth to the top in the United States (PPS Study)
    – 90% of Americans think the deficit is growing or staying the same. It’s getting smaller (Bloomberg Poll)

    All of this ignorance deals only with government and history, and I’m not even getting into the appalling stupidity of the American public when it comes to science and technology (or how half of Americans believe in ghosts, etc.)

    This was probably not worth my time to put together, considering you will probably just invent some new strawman and ignore what I have presented, but I don’t say Americans (in the aggregate) are stupid for no reason. There are very good reasons to believe that.

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  44. [...] Why The “It’s Just Metadata” Argument Is False (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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  45. [...] Why The “It’s Just Metadata” Argument Is False (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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