Ever since the Guardian UK revealed that the National Security Agency was using metadata to mine data from Verizon customers without warrant, the word metadata itself has been at the forefront of conversations — particularly in asking what it is. So I asked some friends of mine who are computer savvy to explain it to me, and asked not only what it is, but why and how someone would use it.
Metadata is simply data about other data. Meta is Greek for ‘behind,’ so literally, the data behind data. So what can the government know about the data its collecting? Not much…at least initially.
Metadata is considered targeted data-mining. Using a cell phone as an example, what can Metadata reveal? Embedded in each cellphone is a chipset with various information about the phone, and from that, its user. Each chipset can tell the government the length of a call, the area code, type of phone and software, location of the call placed and received, and most importantly, a unique identifying number assigned to every cellphone (not your actual cellphone number). Metadata CANNOT reveal the contents of your conversations, texts or actual name or phone number.
So why does the government use Metadata then? Because it is a means to an end. Using pattern analysis software, according to my friend who has a Masters in Computer Science with an emphasis on computer security, the government can figure out exactly who you are. It is based on mathematical probability. That eventually as you continuously cross reference call patterns, you wind up with only one possible call-maker, YOU.
Of course the government isn’t doing this to every cellphone it tracks. That is because Metadata is useful only when you know what data you are looking for. So the government in collecting this data is trying to tie patterns of calls and messages to produce red flags. So for example, someone who makes a lot of calls to Pakistan could be red flagged.
Metadata collection is ultimately part 1 of a 2-part process of warrantless, domestic surveillance. What the government ultimately uses Metadata for is a means to get a National Security Letter issued to actually proceed to “content surveillance.” If I am an NSA agent and I have a series of unique identifying numbers of Verizon customers making several phone calls to Pakistan, I can take that information to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and demand a National Security Letter be issued to start content-mining the users email, calls and other forms of communication. Metadata mining allows the NSA to use vague, circumstantial evidence to produce National Security Letters as a substitute for a warrant which would require more stringent judicial review and burden of proof. The NSLs are produced to email providers, mobile carriers, ISPs etc. The NSL is top secret, and the company on the receiving end is bound by secrecy and cannot tell anyone, including the user, that an NSL has been ordered, so the user does not know of any surveillance.
Ultimately, often the people this hurts are innocent people. Lets take a hypothetical example. Lets say I am a doctor and a Pakistani immigrant to Queens, NY. I live in an ethnic community of various immigrants from the middle east. I was fortunate enough to escape the brutality of the Taliban that I’ve witnessed execute women on the street under the lunacy of Sharia Law. I love America, because for me I grew up believing this place was the home of the free, the land of the brave. My journey here was hard, and I had to petition for refugee status, as if I were returned, I could be killed by tribal warfare for my treatment of women and young girls wounded by tribal war. My medical degree is not recognized here, so I wash dishes on Steinway Street in a Hasheesh cafe. My family still lives in the region, and I use what little money I make to call my brother, a doctor, hoping he and my wife are still alive.
The government sees several phone calls from what is a known ethnic Pakistani community in Queens. The phone calls are placed to a community in Northern Pakistan. Given the recent radicalized factions in Queens, such as the Imam who had ties to the Time Square bombing attempt, the government is concerned. The NSA takes this Metadata and petitions the FSIC to issue a National Security Letter. The resulting surveillance uncovers that this man is sending money home to his family. Given the money travels through banks flagged with known terrorist affiliation, and the town it travels to is in a lawless region of Pakistan, the FBI moves in to arrest the Pakistani man for wire-fraud. Given the National Security exemption, the suspect is not read his Miranda rights and is detained in prison, questioned for days where he reveals he was only sending money to his family. Unknowingly, he has admitted to sending the money in the first place. The FBI now has a case. He is assigned a lawyer, and finally read his Miranda rights. The trial takes place, and given the evidence against him, his swearing it was to his family is not good enough. He is convicted and sentenced to Federal Prison, and his Wire-Fraud charge carries with it under recent Federal Legislation an upgraded charge for aiding terrorism. He will spend life in prison.
Think this can’t happen? It absolutely could. And not only for a Pakistani immigrant, but like the IRS scandal has shown, people of a particular political point of view. If you’re a Libertarian, or voted for one, some in government have expressed interest in further monitoring Libertarian’s communications, given their vocal opposition to many federal agencies. The government has actually targeted “Anti-Government Americans” and has regularly spied on peaceful demonstrators and activists.
In conclusion Metadata is but a means to an end to move to content surveillance. But terrorists don’t use cell phones, the internet and technological forms of communication. The man who wants to commit the next 9/11 is not a Verizon subscriber. The man who will conspire to commit the next attack on a US Embassy isn’t using Gmail to recruit. The man who is inspired to carry out the next attack on a sacred American tradition like Patriot Day in Boston likely doesn’t even own a computer.
It took us ten years to find Osama Bin Laden. It took us ten years because the people who actually pose a threat know better than to use technological forms of communication. They use vast networks of couriers and on-foot communication, one who eventually lead us to him. Nothing is written down, nothing is NOT exchanged via spoken word.
In the end the government is wasting its time. The government knows terrorists aren’t using technology to communicate. If they are, they use untraceable means like disposable Tracphones and encrypted servers and private web browsers they won’t ever use again.
It is innocent Americans who are caught up in the process. The government needs to use traditional means of Judicial review to target terrorism the way they do other crimes. In the end, it is much more likely to be shot by a maniac watching a Batman movie than it is to be blown up on the subway. However the economy of fear is too strong. So the powers that be, remain.
So I will leave one with the words of Benjamin Franklin:
Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one