The collection of metadata cannot be discounted. According to Bruce Schneier: metadata equals surveillance. Ann Cavoukian, Canada’s Information and Privacy Commissioner states that metadata can actually be more revealing than content:
Pieces of metadata or traffic data are the digital crumbs that we leave behind when we use communications technologies and online services. Metadata includes information that reveals the time and duration of a communication, the particular devices, addresses, or numbers contacted, which kinds of communications services we use, and at what geolocations. And since virtually every device we use has a unique identifying number, our communications and Internet activities may be linked and traced with relative ease – ultimately back to the individuals involved. All this metadata is collected and retained by communications service providers for varying periods of time,including by telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers,for an array business purposes. – A Primer on Metadata: Separating Fact from Fiction
Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about. —Obama
According to The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA) Section 702: If a US citizen communicates with a foreign national that has been targeted by the NSA — warrantless surveillance is permitted. A foreign national is any person who is a citizen of any country other than the United States — so if my friend in Switzerland has been targeted by the NSA for surveillance, they can eavesdrop on our phone conversation. Perhaps they can simply target my Swiss friend just to make it appear legal (by their definition), so that they can eavesdrop on me. As long as the foreign national is located outside the US and selected as a target or is a suspect of international terrorism — that would be enough probable cause to collect the content and associated metadata of our telephone call.
Nature published a study last year about how much metadata can actually reveal:
A simply anonymized dataset does not contain name, home address, phone number or other obvious identifier. Yet, if individual’s patterns are unique enough, outside information can be used to link the data back to an individual. For instance, in one study, a medical database was successfully combined with a voters list to extract the health record of the governor of Massachusetts. In another, mobile phone data have been re-identified using users’ top locations. Finally, part of the Netflix challenge dataset was re-identified using outside information from The Internet Movie Database.
Metadata can reveal our habits; associations; religious worship; when we wake up; when we go to sleep; sexual orientation; marital infidelities, our political and civil affiliations; and even our health records. All this metadata has the capability of fingerprinting an individual’s identity.
[When] aggregated,telephony metadata allows the government to construct social graphs and to study their evolution and communications patterns over days, weeks, months, or even years. Metadata analysis can reveal the rise and fall of intimate relationships, the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, the telltale signs of a corporate merger or acquisition, the identity of a prospective government whistleblower, the social dynamics of a group of associates, or even the name of an anonymous litigant. —ACLU
Metadata can tell you more than content. If I call my Swiss friend this afternoon to set up a meeting for next week — and this is our 25th phone call this year. The NSA knows that my friend works with a particular activist group and that I am a blogger and that we both have discourse (via many communication protocols) regarding government surveillance.
Our metadata does not belong to us
You can’t get a copy of your metadata from the phone company because only law enforcement requests are permitted. My metadata and my foreign national friends metadata is not our data. It has never belonged to us because it only belongs to law enforcement and the government. Try talking to Verizon about your metadata and you will meet up with deaf ears.
Metadata equals surveillance
Schneier on Security:
When the government collects metadata on people, the government puts them under surveillance. When the government collects metadata on the entire country, they put everyone under surveillance. When Google does it, they do the same thing. Metadata equals surveillance; it’s that simple.
So, what are we going to do about it?