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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 What Can You Learn From An Email Header (Metadata)? What Can You Learn From An Email Header (Metadata)? Did you ever get an e-mail and really wondered where it came from? Who sent it? How could they have known who you are? Surprisingly a lot of that information can be from from the... Read More .

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 Who Is Fighting On Your Behalf Against The NSA And For Privacy? Who Is Fighting On Your Behalf Against The NSA And For Privacy? There are several Internet activism groups who are fighting on your behalf for privacy. They are doing their best to educate netizens as well. Here are just a few of them that are incredibly active. Read More .

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 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 Who Is Fighting On Your Behalf Against The NSA And For Privacy? Who Is Fighting On Your Behalf Against The NSA And For Privacy? There are several Internet activism groups who are fighting on your behalf for privacy. They are doing their best to educate netizens as well. Here are just a few of them that are incredibly active. Read More .

The Takeaway

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.

Image Credits: Obstacles, via Per Wickstrom, MIT Streaker, via Wikipedia, Searching Garbage, via Shutterstock.

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  1. Mike
    April 4, 2017 at 7:33 am

    Well, it all revolves around how they catch monkeys. The hunter puts an orange that is just the size of the mouth of a bottle into the bottle and ties it to the ground. The monkey usually will reach in and grab the orange, but won't let it go even when the hunter grabs them and stuffs them into a sack. Bad for the monkeys, they either end up as a pet, or a meal.
    So, how does this involve security, the internet etc. etc.? Well, the internet is the bottle, and all those goodies are the bait and monkey (in this case humans) login to the Internet (put their hands in the bottle) to get the bait (coupons, FACEBOOK bragging, discounts etc.) and their information is captured by the hunter and the humans become a pet of the corporations or a meal for a scammer.

    So, If you value privacy over being hunted don't put your hand in the bottle. You can dig a hole in the desert and hide or:

    I don't do anything but surf and email. I get maybe, three baited hooks a year and don't grab the bait. On the rare occasion I need something I can't "get without grabbing the bait"; I have a dummy account that I email from that doesn't have "my" profile, but a rather bazaar profile, that I change frequently. As far as the government goes I keep a low profile so like the Viet Cong I look like just about any other peasant in the village. As Mao said, swim in the sea of the people.

  2. KT
    September 11, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Great article. I use as many privacy tools as I can: Ghostery, do not track me, ad blockers, duck duck go instead of google, etc. I should use Tor, but that brings attention to you. The biggest privacy issues are behavioral. With social media, people willingly broadcast in real time the events of their lives. It makes life for stalkers, robbers or worse even easier.

    • Guy M
      September 15, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      KT, those things are obvious to people who are somewhat computer saavy, but for even many IT professionals, few are aware of the privacy risks involved with metadata. It's there, it will always be there. It isn't 'personal' like a Facebook post is, but it may reveal even more about you than your Facebook profile.
      Metadata can be used to make forecasts about your behaviour, even before you think about doing something. That's scary!

  3. dragonmouth
    September 11, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    Big Brother was a bumbling noob!

    • Guy M
      September 11, 2014 at 5:44 pm

      I don't get it. Do you mean Big Brother in the book was a n00b compared to what can be done today?

    • dragonmouth
      September 11, 2014 at 7:38 pm

      In a word, YES. But then, technology available today wasn't even a dream at the time of Orwell.