What can snoops learn from your metadata? Way more than you thought

NSA metadata collection

Since Americans learned in June of last year that the National Security Agency collects the telephone “metadata” of virtually every phone call within the United States, little has changed in what will soon be a year. One federal judge found that the Patriot Act-backed program almost certainly violates our Fourth Amendment rights, while another found (PDF) the practice legally sound. President Obama has offered minor efforts to reform metadata collection, while repeatedly reassuring Americans that “nobody is listening to the content of people’s phone calls.”

Meanwhile, an analysis by the nonprofit New America Foundation found that “bulk collection of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity.” And yet, the collection continues unabated.

“Bulk collection of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”

In short, the telephone metadata situation remains a confusing mess. What is becoming increasingly less vague is this: Metadata can reveal a staggering amount of personal details about our lives, a fact further proved this week in a newly released study by Stanford University researchers. Their results are nothing short of disturbing, showing once again that it’s time for the law to prevent the collection of innocent people’s metadata just as it protects us from any other unreasonable seizure of private information.

The researchers rounded up a pool willing to install a specially-developed app called MetaPhone, which would give them an NSA-like view of calling habits. Using metadata – numbers called, time and duration of calls, unique serial number of devices used in calls, and sometimes the location of placed calls , the researchers were able to uncover a wealth of highly personal information about the callers.

“The degree of sensitivity among contacts took us aback,” write Jonathan Mayer and Patrick Mutchler, the researchers who conducted the study. “Participants had calls with Alcoholics Anonymous, gun stores, NARAL Pro-Choice, labor unions, divorce lawyers, sexually transmitted disease clinics, a Canadian import pharmacy, strip clubs, and much more. This was not a hypothetical parade of horribles. These were simple inferences, about real phone users, that could trivially be made on a large scale.”

In conclusion, write the researchers, “reasonable minds can disagree about the policy and legal constraints that should be imposed on [NSA] databases. The science, however, is clear: Phone metadata is highly sensitive.”

NSA floor seal

For those of you who’ve been paying attention to this issue for the past nine months, this is anything but surprising. Back in August, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged (PDF) the Obama administration’s assertion that metadata is not protected by the Fourth Amendment with comments from Ed Felten, a professor of computer science at Princeton University. As Felten wrote in his legal brief, “Telephony metadata can be extremely revealing, both at the level of individual calls and, especially, in the aggregate.”

To further his point, Felten provided the following example: “A young woman calls her gynecologist; then immediately calls her mother; then a man who, during the past few months, she had repeatedly spoken to on the telephone after 11 p.m.; followed by a call to a family planning center that also offers abortions. A likely storyline emerges that would not be as evident by examining the record of a single telephone call.”

“The science … is clear: Phone metadata is highly sensitive.”

While the ACLU lost its case against the Obama administration, the group continues to push its campaign for greater protection of all types of metadata – and we would all be wise to support it. That means writing and calling your representatives in Congress, writing and calling the White House, signing petitions, and otherwise voicing your opposition to what has become a truly 21st century privacy problem.

It may be true that you believe you have nothing to hide. Perhaps you’re OK with the government knowing vast details about your personal affairs. But many of us, myself included, do not. We know that data is forever, and the people with access to that data may not always be trustworthy – if, indeed, they are trustworthy now. We know that the technology to exploit that data is only getting more powerful by the day. And we believe that there are ways to protect all our safety without demolishing the freedom to live a private life. Do us all a favor, and don’t let this issue slide further back into our collective mind.

(Image credit Sidarta via Shutterstock.com)

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Write music with your voice, make homemade cheese

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

The best of the last generation: Our 50 favorite Xbox 360 games

The Xbox 360 thrived during a generation where games were plentiful. Here's our list of the best Xbox 360 games of all time, including all game genres and even a few special indie hits.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The best protective iPhone cases to defend against dirt, dings, and drops

If you’re going off-road or work outdoors, it could be a good idea to invest in a tough case. These are our picks of the best protective iPhone cases for all iterations of the iPhone, from the iPhone XS to the 7.

Debunking Dark Mode: Here’s why it won’t improve your laptop’s battery life

Dark Mode is known to improve battery life for certain devices, like a smartphone with an OLED screen. Does that apply to laptops, as well? To find out we tested two laptops, one running Windows and one running MacOS.

Logitech’s newest headsets sound as good as they look, but they’re not perfect

Logitech's G935 and G432 bring style and impressive sound to the table. They boast leatherette earpads, positional 3D sound, and 50mm drivers, Logitech has become a formidable adversary for competitors, but the company's new headsets aren't…

In the age of Alexa and Siri, Cortana’s halo has grown dim

In a sea of voice assistants, Cortana has become almost irrelevant. The nearly five-year-old voice assistant is seeing little love from consumers, and here’s why it is dead.

EA is losing out on the true potential of Titanfall studio with ‘Apex Legends’

Apex Legends is a solid battle royale game, but one can’t shake the feeling that its creation was dictated by Respawn’s new owners: Electronic Arts. In the process, the studio’s soul could be lost.

The 'Anthem' demo's crash landing raises more questions than answers

Bioware bravely allowed gamers to see a large chunk of 'Anthem' over two demo weekends, but it backfired. Lackluster missions, performance issues, and muddled messaging over micro-transactions leaves the game with an uphill battle.

Apex Legends proves battle royale is no fad. In fact, it’s just getting started

Apex Legends came out of nowhere to take the top spot as battle royale in 2019, and it now looks as if it'll be the biggest game of the year. Its sudden success proves the battle royale fad still has plenty of life left in it.
Home Theater

Apple is arming up to redefine TV just like it did the phone

Curious about what Apple's answer to Netflix will be? Us too. So we combed through some patents, and looked at the landscape, to come up with a bold prediction: Apple's streaming service will be way bigger than anyone thinks.
Home Theater

How the headphone jack helps Samsung out-Apple the king

Samsung’s latest flagship phones and wearables unveiled at the Galaxy Unpacked event had plenty of exciting new tech. But one of the most useful features Samsung revealed is also the oldest: The mighty headphone jack.

Age of Empires II thrives 20 years later. Here's what Anthem could learn from it

Age Of Empires II is approaching its 20th birthday. It has a loyal following that has grown over the past five years. New always-online games like Anthem would love to remain relevant for so long, but they have a problem. They're just not…

Devil May Cry is Fantastic, but I still want a DmC: Devil May Cry sequel

Capcom's Devil May Cry 5 is one of the best games of 2019 and a welcome return for the series, but its success should not discount just how wonderful Ninja Theory's DmC: Devil May Cry really was.