Do you care about your privacy? You should. Or are you one of those people that thinks, “I’ve got nothing to hide, so they can look at whatever they want!” Sorry, you may have something to hide and not even know it. “What?”, you ask, “I just told you I have nothing to hide. I’ve never done anything against the law.” That’s not the point.
What if someone could tell that you were going to have credit problems before you knew? Could they deny your loan or quote you higher interest rates? What if someone knew that you were having medical problems even before you knew? Could they use that to deny you insurance? What if you’ve been talking with someone who DOES have something to hide? Could you get lumped in with them if they get arrested?
Would an investigation into your life make it miserable, even if you didn’t do anything wrong?
You know the answers to those questions. It’s yes. Now you’re wondering, “How could anyone possible know that about me without searching through my mail, e-mail, or phone calls? They need a warrant for that!”
You are correct, they do need a warrant. But they don’t need a warrant to get information, or metadata, about your mail, e-mail, or phone calls. You WILL be surprised what someone can tell you about you just from something as seemingly insignificant as who sent you an e-mail, to whom you sent an e-mail, when the e-mails were sent and how many e-mails there are between you and your contact. All that information is available without a warrant.
Immersion – See it for Yourself
If you don’t believe that someone can tell intimate details about you from simple metadata, test it out for yourself. MIT has developed a program called Immersion that, only with your permission, gathers metadata about your e-mail account. The metadata is pretty limited too; there’s more that could be collected. Take a look at how much metadata each e-mail has.
This is what Immersion looks at:
“Once you log in, Immersion will use only the From, To, Cc and Timestamp fields of the emails in the account you are signing in with. It will not access the subject or the body content of any of your emails.”
With just that information, Immersion will give you a visual representation of your relationships with the people with whom you communicate by e-mail. You can change the time period that it looks at, how deep it goes into your e-mail relationships (Nodes), and who is linked to whom (Links).
Let’s take a look at a fictional e-mail account. In the video below, you’ll see how to use Immersion, how to look at the data in different ways, and what sort of information one might be able to extrapolate based on just 4 pieces of metadata about your e-mail. The more pieces of metadata you add, from different sources like phone, Internet, and letter mail records, the deeper and more precise a picture can be painted about you.
Give it a try with your own e-mail account and see if you learn anything new about yourself. You can logout of the program and have all of the info Immersion used immediately deleted, so it’s pretty safe. But keep in mind that if you allow it access to your Google account, you will have to go into your Google account and revoke access to break any ties permanently with Immersion.
As you saw in the video above, with just four little pieces of metadata, how much can be learned about you and the people you associate with. Add into that a few hundred more little points of metadata, and publicly available information about you on the Internet, and someone can figure out just about everything there is to know about you, without ever having to request a search warrant or even be a competent government official. However, there are some people out there trying to change that.
Dr. Metadata – The Interview
Speaking of people with a significant interest in metadata, watch this interview with Professor Jeffrey Pomerantz, of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Pomerantz also teaches the Coursera.org course, Metadata: Organizing and Discovering Information.
Dr. Pomerantz highlights the pervasiveness of metadata and how important it is to any sort of exchange of information. Perhaps the most important point of the interview with him was that metadata will always exist. We all need to be aware of it, and understand that we trade it for access to all the wonderful information technology out there. Don’t be afraid, but do be aware.
Dr. Pomerantz pointed out a study of very special note. The MetaPhone study conducted by researchers at Stanford University must be read. The researchers had participants run an app on their smartphones that collected simple metadata, such as device logs, and then they analyzed that information. They were floored at the amount of sensitive detail they could extract from this small sample of metadata.
“We were able to infer medical conditions, firearm ownership, and more, using solely phone metadata.”
The only way you might be able to limit this kind of access into your life would be to use burner phones.
Just like people were shocked by how their own garbage could be used against them, the full shock of how metadata can be used against us is still to hit home. What we think of as non-sensitive throw away information is floating around cyberspace like so much garbage in a cesspool. But that garbage is a goldmine if it falls into the wrong hands.
Have you ever heard of metadata? Is this news to you? What do you think your metadata might reveal about you, or to you? Do you take any special steps to protect yourself with regards to metadata analysis? If so, what? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below. After all, we’re all in this together.