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You've probably heard politicians or pundits say that 'metadata doesn't matter’. They argue that police and intelligence agencies shouldn't need probable cause warrants to collect information about our communications. Metadata isn’t all that revealing, they say, it’s just numbers.
When President Obama famously said “no one is listening to your telephone calls,” he positioned wiretapping—a privacy invasion widely understood in the United States to hinge on the showing of probable cause and judicial approval—as diametrically opposed to metadata surveillance. “No one’s listening to your telephone calls,” he said, apparently trying to reassure us. “That’s not what this program’s about.”
The President’s comment, true or not, obscures both the invasiveness of metadata spying and the extent to which prosecutors at every level are fighting to keep their warrantless access to it. Digital metadata trails provide detailed—and precisely accurate—context and perspective for investigators, spies, abusers, or anyone else with access. When data-mined or mapped, this information reveals things that may even be unknowable by listening to someone’s telephone calls or reading their emails.
Metadata surveillance exposes the content of our lives in a way that wiretapping can't. In a lot of ways, it’s much more powerful.
The bakery I buy coffee from every morning at 8:15 sharp. My friend’s insomnia, keeping him up writing emails late into the night. The fact that I used to religiously swipe my gym card at least five times a week, and now rarely make it four. Especially when taken together, but even discretely, the pieces of digital metadata we leave behind us each day over the months, years, and decades locate us in our most private of worlds.
When you think about the FBI and NSA collecting your metadata in bulk, as they are currently, think of it as unknown numbers of people having access to information about you so sensitive that they can divine some insight about your life of which you aren’t even conscious yourself.
The digital metadata trails you leave behind every day say more about you than you can imagine. But thanks to two MIT students, you don't have to—at least with respect to your email.
Deepak Jagdish and Daniel Smilkov's Immersion program maps your life, using your email account. After you give the researchers access to your email metadata—not the content, just the time and date stamps, and 'To' and 'Cc' fields—they’ll return to you a series of maps and graphs that will blow your mind. The program will remind you of former loves, illustrate the changing dynamics of your professional and personal networks over time, mark deaths and transitions in your life, and more. You’ll probably learn something new about yourself, if you study it closely enough. (The students say they delete your data on your command.)
Whether or not you grant the program access to your data, watch the video embedded above to see Jagdish and Smilkov show illustrations from Immersion and talk about what they discerned about themselves from looking at their own metadata maps. While you’re watching, remember that while the NSA and FBI are collecting our phone records in bulk, and using advanced computer algorithms to make meaning from them, state and local government officials can often also get this information without a warrant.
When President Obama said that the phone surveillance program “isn’t about” “listening to your telephone calls,” he was deflecting attention from the terrifying fact that there’s nothing currently stopping the government from amassing and data-mining every scrap of metadata in the world about us. He made it sound like metadata spying isn't a big deal, when it's pretty much the golden ticket.
Metadata surveillance is extremely powerful, and we are all subject to it, constantly. If you want to see something resembling what the NSA sees when it looks at your data, give Jagdish and Smilkov’s program a try. Then tell the government: get a warrant.