Why worry about NSA collecting telephone metadata?

posted at 12:01 pm on August 29, 2013 by Bruce McQuain

Because that data can tell a story that perhaps you’d prefer to keep private or is none of anyone else’s business.  For instance:

Certain telephone numbers are used for a single purpose, such that any contact reveals basic and often sensitive information about the caller. Examples include support hotlines for victims of domestic violence and rape, including a specific hotline for rape victims in the armed services.

Similarly, numerous hotlines exist for people considering suicide, including specific services for first responders, veterans, and gay and lesbian teenagers. Hotlines exist for suffers of various forms of addiction, such as alcohol, drugs, and gambling.

Or if you’re a government agency:

Similarly, inspectors general at practically every federal agency—including the NSA—have hotlines through which misconduct, waste, and fraud can be reported, while numerous state tax agencies have dedicated hotlines for reporting tax fraud. Hotlines have also been established to report hate crimes, arson, illegal firearms and child abuse. In all these cases, the metadata alone conveys a great deal about the content of the call, even without any further information.

So to those who buy into the “you have nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong” nonsense … yes, you do have something to fear.  Misuse of this data.  This isn’t about what you may have done wrong.  This is about snooping and drawing conclusions about you based on numbers you’ve dialed.

And, it can get more intimate than that:

Two people in an intimate relationship may regularly call each other, often late in the evening. If those calls become less frequent or end altogether, metadata will tell us that the relationship has likely ended as well—and it will tell us when a new relationship gets underway. More generally, someone you speak to once a year is less likely to be a close friend than someone you talk to once a week.

Consider the following hypothetical 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 11p.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.

Likewise, although metadata revealing a single telephone call to a bookie may suggest that a surveillance target is placing a bet, analysis of metadata over time could reveal that the target has a gambling problem, particularly if the call records also reveal a number of calls made to payday loan services.

If a government employee suddenly begins contacting phone numbers associated with a number of news organizations and then the ACLU and then, perhaps, a criminal defense lawyer, that person’s identity as a prospective whistleblower could be surmised.

There is no reason to collect metadata unless you plan on doing something with it.  It is just a large list of telephone numbers. Intelligence production comes from analysis. What is outlined above are just of a few of the things that can be found with that information. As Ed Felten, a professor of computer science at Princeton University argues:

[T]he distinction between call “contents” and “metadata” isn’t always clear. Sometimes, the mere fact that someone called a particular number reveals extremely sensitive personal information.

Unfortunately the Supreme Court decided in 1979 that phone records are not protected by the Fourth Amendment because consumers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their calling records.  In light of the NSA’s collection habits and the obvious privacy issues that sort of collection can bring as illustrated above, it’s time to revisit that decision and come down on the side of citizenry and their right to privacy.  If the NSA or other collection agencies feel the need to monitor certain phone numbers or collect metadata on them, let them justify themselves to a court.

~McQ


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Here’s how phone metadata can reveal your affairs, abortions, and other secrets

HT InstaPundit

Akzed on August 29, 2013 at 12:04 PM

And all we get from the Congress is a Sergeant Schultz impersonation…

Wino on August 29, 2013 at 12:05 PM

So when do the giant cube-shaped spaceships get built for us, and will we get a choice of mechanical implants because I really like the highs-speed miniature circular saw where my hand used to be.

Bishop on August 29, 2013 at 12:06 PM

Tough days for Fiona – now the NSA is spying on her as well!

22044 on August 29, 2013 at 12:07 PM

I see Fiona finally got a job (that thumbnail is one that often pops up when there’s bad jobs numbers to be reported and commented upon).

Seriously, I lost track of which exhibit in the evidence against SCOTUS always being right that 1979 decision is.

Steve Eggleston on August 29, 2013 at 12:08 PM

So, Fiona works for the NSA now.

Must have replaced Snowden.

sentinelrules on August 29, 2013 at 12:09 PM

Here I thought we were slipping with the first Fiona reference in the fourth comment. Turns out I shouldn’t have had any fear – comments 4, 5 and 6 all feature everybody’s favorite unemployed woman.

Steve Eggleston on August 29, 2013 at 12:11 PM

They will wonder about me then! Lmao…

Hey Mr McQ! Welcome to HA, I like you :)

There is no more PRIVACY! Hasn’t been for a very long long time now, they just got better at collecting it…

They have a precise ‘map’ of all our ‘doings’ which could be used against us!

Can’t do a thing about it…

SPIT

Scrumpy on August 29, 2013 at 12:12 PM

Sheepleton never deserve to be free.

Have any of you wondered why the NYT, right after it made a deal with The Guardian, to print more Snowden stuff, is ‘hacked’ for days…

Schadenfreude on August 29, 2013 at 12:15 PM

I have a browser add-on that randomly submits queries to Google. I wonder if someone could develop a cell phone app that randomly dials telephone numbers. That would screw up their metadata, and make this whole shebang a moot exercise. Of course, everyone in the country would be bothered by random phone connections, but you gotta take the bad with the good.

Wino on August 29, 2013 at 12:15 PM

The Brits are coming.

Schadenfreude on August 29, 2013 at 12:17 PM

It is worse than the examples above because cell phone meta data also includes things like location. They are also collecting internet browsing and email meta data as well. Given that vast amount of information an accurate picture of your communication and day to day life becomes pretty clear.

bj1126 on August 29, 2013 at 12:19 PM

You guys use that picture way too much. I feel like I have seen it a million times.

bluegill on August 29, 2013 at 12:23 PM

Back in 1979, the technology available to law enforcement was LUDs…Local Usage Details, which with a court order, or reasonable suspicion, the police could contact the phone company and get a print out of every call made to or from a number…the stuff of Law and Order and other police shows.

But, LUDs never provided content…could not provide content…and were cumbersome to use…line by line, cross matching…and then making sure the user of a number was still the valid user of that number…laborious. And often tossed out of court because of the assumptions made without content.

Phone use…cell phone use…Ipad use…laptop…wifi…modem…all of it can be scooped up easily, to include content…not just some LUD…content…accessible…easily.

Why spend billions if none of the bulk of it allegedly is never going to be used?

Used to find some pretty bad people doing some pretty horrid things by following the money…and in times of tight money…made it easier…people, governments, countries normally spend their treasure on what they consider most vital to them…or the leadership.

Over a couple trillion already spent for “homeland security” yet we still have no clear definition of “homeland security.”

Security = Sicherheit.

We’ve been down this road before…

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 12:24 PM

Wino on August 29, 2013 at 12:15 PM

Or put you in their aim quickly.
But the dialer is worthless, part of the meta data is how long the call lasted.
What you would rather have is something that could inject false information into the metadata. But that would be very illegal.

astonerii on August 29, 2013 at 12:27 PM

There’s another facet to the collection of this data that so far hasn’t received much attention, and that is the future use of the data.

If someone is the target of an investigation, and a proper warrant is obtained to collect and monitor communications (email, phone, text, etc..), that information is intended to be used as evidence to prove the commission of a crime that person is suspected of. This is what we all understand to be the process and proper use of surveillance.

Whats happening now is the government is collecting information, storing it, and accessing it at their leisure. For what purpose? To use as evidence against you when you are a suspect in a crime that hasn’t happened yet? That is unreasonable.

Are we heading towards a “Minority Report”-type police state?

There is yet another issue to be discussed, and this one has a huge impact on the relationship between the citizen and the government.

When the government uncovers evidence of a crime, are they going to be required to prosecute that crime, or do they get to pick and choose who suffers from domestic spying?

Joe the Plumber cheats on his taxes vs Obama sells his Senate seat?

BobMbx on August 29, 2013 at 12:32 PM

You guys use that picture way too much. I feel like I have seen it a million times.

bluegill on August 29, 2013 at 12:23 PM

Fiona’s only been on the front page 58 times.

Steve Eggleston on August 29, 2013 at 12:33 PM

Besides, bluegill, you have to give Bruce some credit for finding a different topic to use Fiona for.

Steve Eggleston on August 29, 2013 at 12:34 PM

Everyone in Washington feared J. Edgar Hoover’s personal files that mysteriously disappeared after his death. Now people on both sides of the aisle defend the collection of all this data. They are all just a bunch of damn power hungry bastards.

SC.Charlie on August 29, 2013 at 12:37 PM

BobMbx on August 29, 2013 at 12:32 PM

An ounce of preemption is worth a pound of trying to find the stuff later…

So, to keep things organized…instead of a massive “cloud” just sitting there…there would be, of necessity, files…lots of files, accessible files, all indexed and cross-matched, by name, affiliation, activity, time, location…and of course phone number/or net connection…that ISP thing… and it would have to be retrievable in an instant.

So, every person who is or has been or will be using a phone, or the internet, will have a file, as will any organization or affiliate, or member of anything inside the US.

And, we all know, for a fact, that nobody, nobody in government at any level would ever use this sort of goldmine of information for personal reasons or political reasons…ever.

Zis vud haf made zee “Final Solution” soo verrry much more, how you say, efficient, ja, das ist zee vord…efficient.

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 12:46 PM

I’ve always been spooked by the very small step between all the data supermarkets have on my eating habits coupled with actuarial tables and see insurance rates go further up. I’ve also heard rumblings of monitors on vehicles to reduce premiums on car insurance…another small step makes those mandatory.

Any kind of data is scary powerful, look what it helped elect. Q.E.D.

ExPat on August 29, 2013 at 12:54 PM

There is no reason to collect metadata unless you plan on doing something with it.

Exactly. And therein lies the danger.

bluefox on August 29, 2013 at 1:08 PM

Problem is, they aren’t just collecting metadata. They are reading, indexing, and storing the entire content of the communication. Every phone call, email and text. The NSA has the largest battery of Cray supercomputers in the world. These computers process the communications. Obama said “nobody” listens to your phone calls for a very calculated reason….because the Crays are not people (just like corporations).
Think about it, if the NSA was able to link a terrorist operation on metadata, wouldn’t they want to be able to go back and mine the content of the communication? “Gee, we discovered a cell of terrorists through metadata, too bad we do not know what they were saying or up to.”
You do not need hundred acre server farms to store metadata. You do need hundred acre server farms to store the content.

oceansidecon on August 29, 2013 at 1:09 PM

Old hotness: cell phones.

New hotness: public pay phones?

iurockhead on August 29, 2013 at 1:11 PM

Barton Gellman about to post docs on Washington Post site about NSA, cyberintelligence etc.

txmomof6 on August 29, 2013 at 1:15 PM

I have a browser add-on that randomly submits queries to Google. I wonder if someone could develop a cell phone app that randomly dials telephone numbers. That would screw up their metadata, and make this whole shebang a moot exercise. Of course, everyone in the country would be bothered by random phone connections, but you gotta take the bad with the good.

Wino on August 29, 2013 at 12:15 PM

I like your direction here. I would also like to get a complete list of the NSA’s hotwords and use an app to insert them into the body of every email and comment and webpage.

slickwillie2001 on August 29, 2013 at 1:15 PM

Problem is, they aren’t just collecting metadata. They are reading, indexing, and storing the entire content of the communication. Every phone call, email and text. The NSA has the largest battery of Cray supercomputers in the world. These computers process the communications. Obama said “nobody” listens to your phone calls for a very calculated reason….because the Crays are not people (just like corporations).
Think about it, if the NSA was able to link a terrorist operation on metadata, wouldn’t they want to be able to go back and mine the content of the communication? “Gee, we discovered a cell of terrorists through metadata, too bad we do not know what they were saying or up to.”
You do not need hundred acre server farms to store metadata. You do need hundred acre server farms to store the content.

oceansidecon on August 29, 2013 at 1:09 PM

Yep. The metadata is just the indexing system for the rest of the files.

slickwillie2001 on August 29, 2013 at 1:23 PM

I have a browser add-on that randomly submits queries to Google. I wonder if someone could develop a cell phone app that randomly dials telephone numbers. That would screw up their metadata, and make this whole shebang a moot exercise. Of course, everyone in the country would be bothered by random phone connections, but you gotta take the bad with the good.

Wino on August 29, 2013 at 12:15 PM

We already have that. It’s called telemarketing.

Dr. Frank Enstine on August 29, 2013 at 1:26 PM

I like your direction here. I would also like to get a complete list of the NSA’s hotwords and use an app to insert them into the body of every email and comment and webpage.

slickwillie2001 on August 29, 2013 at 1:15 PM

Sounds great until they show up at your door and arrest you for being a terrorist that was trying to slowdown or take down their system. This administration is beyond the law. In fact laws have become meaning less to them. Do you think rounding up and making troublemakers disappear would bother them or that they wouldn’t do it?

Dr. Frank Enstine on August 29, 2013 at 1:29 PM

oceansidecon on August 29, 2013 at 1:09 PM

Yep. Sorta like Camp Williams, Utah. Plenty of acreage out there. Under roof, too.

Now, then, using simple mensuration, measure the average length of a common US automobile, to the left of the photo, and calculating perspective…measure the size of that building…and you will find that the Pentagon is about the same or smaller in size.

If it were only metadata…phone numbers/LUDs that sort of thing…could be housed in as typical WWII warehouse over at the old part of Fort Meade.

But storing content?

Look at the air conditioning, power transformers…this is no simple “file it away” warehouse.

We never had that sort of collection and storage capability even when the Soviet threat was at its worse.

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 1:32 PM

Old hotness: cell phones.

New hotness: public pay phones?

iurockhead on August 29, 2013 at 1:11 PM

Use a Tracfone. I have one and it is not connected to my name at all. My wife and daughter have them and they are not connected to their names. All they get is one anonymous number calling another anonymous number between us. We also seldom use them to just chat with people. 60 minutes of time lasts me a couple of months.

Dr. Frank Enstine on August 29, 2013 at 1:32 PM

We never had that sort of collection and storage capability even when the Soviet threat was at its worse.

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 1:32 PM

The Soviets didn’t represent the same level of threat that We the People do to this government.

Dr. Frank Enstine on August 29, 2013 at 1:34 PM

Look at the air conditioning, power transformers…this is no simple “file it away” warehouse.

We never had that sort of collection and storage capability even when the Soviet threat was at its worse.

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 1:32 PM

That Is scary! A facility only the Stasi could love. Google Tordella Ft. Meade.
The massive cooling units are the giveaway. As an architect, I know a little about this. That capacity is for processing, not just storage. I’m familiar with data centers.
Metadata to a library is like the card catalog. Takes up little space. The books are the real data. That’s where you need the space.

oceansidecon on August 29, 2013 at 1:58 PM

HOW THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO WORK:

NSA analyzes calls between the US and, say, Yemen. They look for multiple very short calls between two numbers. They find (972) 555-2112 with this suspicious pattern. It makes ten-second calls to a single number in Yemen, followed within the hour by much longer phone calls from various numbers within a Yemeni telephone exchange associated with throwaway cell phones.

Now a case can be built to find out who else (972)555-2112 is calling, as well as the numbers in Yemen. The metadata will tell whether (972)555-2112 is a possible sleeper agent, or just a poor Yemeni immigrant whose family back in Yemen tracks their long distance expenses by using prepaid phones.

Given the other things we have learned about this Administration, I don’t trust that this is how it is actually working.

Sekhmet on August 29, 2013 at 2:12 PM

Sekhmet on August 29, 2013 at 2:12 PM

Basic traffic analysis — patterns — connections — times — duration — flow — who initiates activity — who only responds.

Content, now that is a different realm altogether.

And, when collection is directed at a primary foreign hostile link…or target…perfectly fine…and should be done.

This is NSA’s charter.

Storing a dozen trillion bits of content, cross indexed, filed, in order to retrieve it “should the need arise” and this collection is largely, if not almost entirely, domestic…not NSA’s charter.

I don’t care what the Patriot Act may say. Using US military personnel, facilities, budget and equipment against US citizens is unconstitutional..and illegal under NSA’s charter.

Unless Obama has signed a Presidential Finding…and if he has done so, why are the heads of the select committees, at a minimum, not informed?

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 2:29 PM

Use a Tracfone. I have one and it is not connected to my name at all. My wife and daughter have them and they are not connected to their names. All they get is one anonymous number calling another anonymous number between us. We also seldom use them to just chat with people. 60 minutes of time lasts me a couple of months.

Dr. Frank Enstine on August 29, 2013 at 1:32 PM

Nope. Use it four times from four discreet locations you frequent to four numbers you have called before and they have you. How did you buy your airtime card? Credit? Was there a camera near the register? They are developing facial recognition software for a reason. It’s called people who pay cash. Called from your car? The one with on-star that you never activated?

It goes on and on.

People seriously underestimate the power of data mining.

WryTrvllr on August 29, 2013 at 2:36 PM

step 1: collection underpants
step 2 ??
step 3: PROFIT
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

dmacleo on August 29, 2013 at 2:39 PM

WryTrvllr on August 29, 2013 at 2:36 PM

We actually helped convince a government to go totally cellular instead of stringing phone lines and having to purchase steel phone poles…not for any environmental reason, or concern for economy…but because we could, in very short order, know within 30 meters where every male head of household in that country was at a given moment, once the phones were “issued” and all heads of household admonished by their own government to never leave home without their cell phone.

The leadership out there thought this was a good idea…from a national security and civil defense perspective….keep track of their citizens, dissenters, that sort of stuff.

So off they went…a couple of European phone companies made a fortune.

The locals? They were happy as pigs in doo doo…all modern, going in to the 21st century and all…modern…like the USA…it was wonderful…they were so darn proud.

We, well, we were happy too. Their leadership carried their phones with them, as well.

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 2:55 PM

It’s called ‘Conditioning’.

The IRS targets Americans…hearings held, lies told, crimes exposed, subpoenaed documents withheld…delay, delay, delay…and it continues (as we have learned it is still going on …as people lose interest.

It was exposed the NSA has violated the Constitution and – admittedly by them – have broken the law thousands of times a year to spy on us…hearings held, lies told, crimes exposed, Constitutional violations exposed, TRANNY exposed, delay, delay, delay…and it is STIL going on.

The continued CRIMINAL activity, attack on the Constitution, and stripping of Americans of their privacy / RIGHTS as not been stopped or even slowed down. It equates to putting a frog in a pot and slowly turning up the heat so he gets used to and is slowly cooked to death before he knows it rather than simply imposing Tyranny all at once. Americans are being ‘conditioned’ to accept the slow attack on our nation and ‘enslavement’ by those perpetrating the take-over.

easyt65 on August 29, 2013 at 3:12 PM

Why worry about NSA collecting telephone metadata?

Frankly, I’m more concerned about the unlimited personal data that the IRS will be collecting as the [ahem] designated supervisory agency overseeing Obamacare. Forget about so-called death panels: The Libs/Progressives have a proven history of being vindictive and spiteful against anyone not a Lib/Progressive, and for attempting to utterly destroy anyone on their enemy’s list.

Ever been a registered Republican or Libertarian? Be warned. Obamacare will open a Pandora’s Box of nightmares the likes of which we’ve never seen in the entire history of our country, and unless Obamacare is neutralized or repealed somehow, next year could begin a phase in our society/country that will have good, decent people running for cover….perhaps even leaving the country.

UPNorthWolf on August 29, 2013 at 3:24 PM

It goes on and on.People seriously underestimate the power of data mining.WryTrvllr on August 29, 2013 at 2:36 PM

This. Almost impossible to buy tracfone or minutes without some identifying records unless you buy from a kiosk while wearing winter gear – assuming they don’t have a hidden camera. In fact, count on it, after hearing how the govt now demands and approves what equipment the telecos use, there’s probably a mandate that retailers install cameras for cash sales.

AH_C on August 29, 2013 at 3:43 PM

AH_C on August 29, 2013 at 3:43 PM

Thus the street traffic in Obamaphones.

slickwillie2001 on August 29, 2013 at 3:54 PM

Was a rash of SIM cards sales a while back…to somehow “disguise” the user…but the key element, having to “register” with a carrier negated the entire idea.

The phone could still be tracked…no matter how many new SIM cards were installed.

No access to the network, why have the phone anyway?

Landlines, with extension phones, maybe a mile away, or more, make it difficult to target the user. Much more difficult. Got to run a good bit of phone wire…but it is fairly cheap to buy. Plug into your neighbor’s phone, all the more better. Using a radio to jump the phone from a distant location…MARS did it all the time.

But that is what one does when one is in a state of rebellion, insurrection.

We have no need for that sort of thing here.

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 4:12 PM

And, we can always go back to CB.

Got yer ears on, good buddy?

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 4:25 PM

It’s not my own metadata I’m concerned about. I’m wondering about the bureaucrats gathering that data on politicians, Supreme Court Justices, wealthy Wall Street types, opposition party donors. With an Administration which is eager to use the IRS as a political tool, what happens when we decide that metadata with this much blackmail potential is fair game for in-depth analysis.

DaNang67 on August 29, 2013 at 6:50 PM

It’s not my own metadata I’m concerned about. I’m wondering about the bureaucrats gathering that data on politicians, Supreme Court Justices, wealthy Wall Street types, opposition party donors. With an Administration which is eager to use the IRS as a political tool, what happens when we decide that metadata with this much blackmail potential is fair game for in-depth analysis.

DaNang67 on August 29, 2013 at 6:50 PM

When we heard from Ruth Buzzi last week that the Supreme Court is still in the 70′s IT-wise, I thought maybe that’s a good thing.

slickwillie2001 on August 29, 2013 at 7:41 PM

With an Administration which is eager to use the IRS as a political tool, what happens when we decide that metadata with this much blackmail potential is fair game for in-depth analysis.

DaNang67 on August 29, 2013 at 6:50 PM

ph34r th31r l33t sk1llz?

AesopFan on August 29, 2013 at 8:59 PM

What’s being described here is traffic analysis.

Now, take the example of the woman in the affair, and change the woman to be a terrorist planning a bombing. All of that traffic analysis now reveals the network of people associated with the bomber — some innocent, but others possibly guilty as hell.

The woman in the affair might have had her rights violated by “LOVINT” — her NSA relation might have looked. Apparently that was a problem which is being taken care of — hopefully in the same way that hospital employees — with no good reason — accessing the records of the rich and famous when they are patients at the hospital — are taken care of. They are fired. That’s what I would do to someone who violated the privacy of a relative.

Now, if the woman in the affair is not related to a terrorist, her records should just sit in the database unretrieved. There’s always an outside indication that the person is a terrorist — you can’t tell what they are without looking at the content of their telephone calls. And looking at the content involves a warrant, and a warrant involves reasonable suspicion.

So there it is.

If I were the NSA, I’d have a timer on records, and if a period of time went by without having that record become part of a traffic analysis, I’d purge the record — just because there are problems with search time for extremely large databases. If your search algorithm runs in O(n*log(n)) you still want n to be as small as it can be. And, if the traffic analysis time reached a timeout, I’d allow those records to be purged too.

But that’s me — and I’m not the NSA. Maybe they have the compute power to let their database grow unboundedly, but I sincerely doubt that. But I don’t know — and if they want to keep 10 year old data on my phone habits, fine — let them. I don’t mind, as long as they don’t sell the data to Google.

unclesmrgol on September 1, 2013 at 2:20 AM

We never had that sort of collection and storage capability even when the Soviet threat was at its worse.

coldwarrior on August 29, 2013 at 1:32 PM

A guess. Like Fort Mead, right?

unclesmrgol on September 1, 2013 at 2:28 AM