Governments and corporations gather, store, and analyze the tremendous amount of data we chuff out as we move through our digitized lives. Often this is without our knowledge, and typically without our consent.
Based on this data, they draw conclusions about us that we might disagree with or object to, and that can impact our lives in profound ways. We may not like to admit it, but we are under mass surveillance.Much of what we know about the NSA’s surveillance comes from Edward Snowden,although people both before and after him also leaked agency secrets.
As an NSA contractor, Snowden collected tens of thousands of documents describing many of the NSA's surveillance activities. In 2013, he fled to Hong Kong and gave them to select reporters. For a while I worked with Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian newspaper, helping analyze some of the more technical documents
The first news story to break that was based on the Snowden documents described how the NSA collects the cell phone call records of every American. One government defense and a sound bite repeated ever since is that the data collected is “only metadata.”The intended point was that the NSA wasn’t collecting the words we spoke during our phone conversations, only the phone numbers of the two parties, and the date, time, and duration of the call. This seemed to mollify many people, but it shouldn’t have. Collecting metadata on people means putting them under surveillance.An easy thought experiment demonstrates this. Imagine that you hired a private detective to eavesdrop on someone.
The detective would plant bugs in that person’s home, office, and car. He would eavesdrop on that person’s phone and computer. And you would get a report detailing that person’s conversations. Now imagine that you asked the detective to put that person under surveillance. You would get a different but nevertheless comprehensive report: where he went, what he did, who he spoke with and for how long, who he wrote to, what he read, and what he purchased. That’s metadata. Eavesdropping gets you the conversations; surveillance gets you everything else. Telephone metadata alone reveals a lot about us. The timing, length, and frequency of our conversations reveal our relationships with others: our intimate friends, business associates, and everyone in-between.
Phone metadata reveals what and who we’re interested in and what’s important to us, no matter how private. It provides a window into our personalities. It yields a detailed summary of what’s happening to us at any point in time.