Metadata, who one communicates with, where one communicates, how one communicates, how long one communicates, the IP address of one’s computer, etc is even more valuable in most instances than the communications themselves. And as of this moment it appears that the NSA has free reign over this information.
At ACC we’ve long been concerned with these issues. Powerful algorithms which can sift through vast stores of data to find patterns are currently being deployed and are becoming more powerful with each passing week. Do you take blood pressure medication? Have you gone to a gun range? What about a strip club? Put these dots together and an outline of an individual quickly emerges.
What is of particular concern is that if the NSA is free to search this data (in clear violation of the 4th Amendment), it is only a matter of time (if the capability doesn’t exist already) until people who have committed no crime, but either have relatives in prison, are inclined to go to gay bars, have the wrong prescription, been to a Tea Party rally, etc, are lumped into “threat categories.” If one falls within this “threat catagory” then extra scrutiny is applied, even though a person has done nothing wrong.
This is the problem with the people who say, “Well I don’t do anything wrong. I have nothing to hide.” (Though thankfully there seem to be many fewer of these people in recent months.) You may not think that you do anything wrong. You may think your actions are completely above the board, and that any reasonable person could see that you are not interested in causing any trouble, but what if it’s not a “reasonable person” doing the digging? An algorithm analyzing your data might highlight you because you happen to live in the wrong part of town, are of the wrong ethnic disposition, sexual orientation, political persuasion (heck the government already targets people for this), religion, even (and probably especially) medical history.
The thing that is particularly scary about metadata trolling is not actually the algorithms themselves, but the creators of these algorithms who are subject to human frailty.
What might look like an important constellation of data points today may turn out not to be. And one can bet that the flavor of these data points will change with any change in government. If being a Tea Party member is frowned upon today, being a member of the AFL-CIO might be if some big government conservative takes the White House. This is a recipe for terrible things.
Power over metadata is incredible power over the American people. Should such power be vested in agency cloaked in “Top Secret” clearances, with a “Top Secret” budget?
Powerful computer algorithms can analyze the metadata to expose patterns and to profile individuals and their associates, Eckersley said.
“Metadata is the perfect place to start if you want to troll through millions of people’s communications to find patterns and to single out smaller groups for closer scrutiny,” he said. “It will tell you which groups of people go to political meetings together, which groups of people go to church together, which groups of people go to nightclubs together or sleep with each other.”
Metadata records of search terms and webpage visits also can reveal a log of your thoughts by documenting what you’ve been reading and researching, Eckersley said.
“That’s certainly enough to know if you’re pregnant or not, what diseases you have, whether you’re looking for a new job, whether you’re trying to figure out if the NSA is watching you or not,” he said, referring to the National Security Agency. Such information provides “a deeply intimate window into a person’s psyche,” he added.