Skip to main content

Uh oh! Connecting your phone metadata to your real name is surprisingly easy

Why does the NSA need your phone records

Since the first round of NSA programs leaked by Edward Snowden hit the press in June, the Obama administration and the spy agency have maintained that its practice of collecting the phone metadata of every phone call in the United States is not a violation of privacy.

“What [one NSA program] does is it gets data from the service providers – like a Verizon – in bulk,” President Obama explained to PBS News’ Charlie Rose in a June interview. “And basically you have call pairs. You have my telephone number connecting with your telephone number. There are no names, there’s no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place.”

True though that may be, researchers at Stanford University have proven that the same metadata that Obama paints as unrevealing can be easily linked to callers’ names – doing so is as simple as performing a Google search.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Stanford Security Lab, used phone call metatdata collected through a specially developed Android app called MetaPhone, through which users voluntarily gave the researchers access to their call records. As researcher Patrick Mutchler explains in a blog post about the study, the team randomly pulled 5,000 numbers from the MetaPhone data pool, then searched them through Google Places, Yelp, and Facebook directories.

“With little marginal effort and just those three sources – all free and public – we matched 1,356 (27.1 percent) of the numbers,” wrote Mutchler. “Specifically, there were 378 hits (7.6 percent) on Yelp, 684 (13.7 percent) on Google Places, and 618 (12.3 percent) on Facebook.”

Presuming the NSA has more money and manpower to put into this kind of search analysis, the team then reduced the number of random phone numbers to 100 and spent less than an hour searching them through Google. Of those numbers, the team was able to link 60. “When we add in our three initial sources, we were up to 73,” Mutchler explains.

The team then used a relatively inexpensive data broker service, Intelius, to take their search one step further. That effort brought the total up to 91 phone numbers linked to real names.

“If a few academic researchers can get this far this quickly, it’s difficult to believe the NSA would have any trouble identifying the overwhelming majority of American phone numbers,” wrote Mutchler.

While metadata does not expose the contents of calls or other communications, experts believe it can be used to derive far more information about people than reading an email or listening in on a phone call can. It is for this reason, among others, that a federal judge recently decided that the NSA’s bulk telephone metadata collection is likely unconstitutional.

For those of you interested in helping further Stanford’s study of metadata, you can download an updated version of MetaPhone here.

(via Threat Post)

Editors' Recommendations

Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Features Editor for Digital Trends, Andrew Couts covers a wide swath of consumer technology topics, with particular focus on…
Got an iPhone 15 Pro? Make sure to change this one setting
iPhone 15 Pro in Natural Titanium held in hand in rose garden archway.

Apple’s iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro are now widely available, and so far, it appears they’ve been a massive success. The iPhone 15 is a huge upgrade from previous base models thanke to the Dynamic Island, a 48MP main camera, the A16 Bionic chipset, and a USB-C port.

But people who want even more have the iPhone 15 Pro as an option. Apple has replaced the stainless steel frame with titanium, the mute switch is gone in favor of the mighty Action button, and we have the A17 Pro with more RAM — plus two additional focal lengths for the 48MP main camera.

Read more
Google Pixel 8: all the latest rumors and what we want to see
Google Pixel 8 leaked render.

The Google Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro are on their way. Google's fallen into a pretty reliable release pattern for Pixel phones, meaning we can safely expect a new lineup of flagship Pixels each year. In 2023, that means the Pixel 8 and 8 Pro.

The Google Pixel 7 and Google Pixel 7 Pro are two excellent devices -- possibly two of the best smartphones Google has ever made. But while they have some serious strengths, several problems and missed opportunities drag both phones down. This wouldn't be a problem if the competition were standing still, but it's not. The Apple iPhone 15 Pro is a beast, and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra is quite possibly one of the best smartphones ever created. So what's a humble Pixel to do?

Read more
How to track an Android phone, tablet, or smartwatch
Sage green Pixel 6a and Snow Pixel 7a in hand

Losing your smartphone can be an absolute nightmare. Not only does your smartphone have all of your most precious photos, videos, and chats saved on it, but it may have information of a more sensitive nature too (like banking apps). That's a big part of the reason why we all experience that familiar skipped heartbeat when we realize our phone isn't where we expect it to be. Thankfully, there are a number of ways you can keep track of all of your smart devices, whether phones or tablets, and even smartwatches.

Read more