If you tweet a picture from your living room using your smartphone, you’re sharing far more than your new hairdo or the color of the wallpaper. You’re potentially revealing the exact coordinates of your house to anyone on the Internet.
The GPS location information embedded in a digital photo is an example of so-called metadata, a once-obscure technical term that’s become one of Washington’s hottest new buzzwords.
The word first sprang from the lips of pundits and politicians earlier this month, after reports disclosed that the government has been secretly accessing the telephone metadata of Verizon customers, as well as online videos, emails, photos and other data collected by nine Internet companies. President Barack Obama hastened to reassure Americans that “nobody is listening to your phone calls,” while other government officials likened the collection of metadata to reading information on the outside of an envelope, which doesn’t require a warrant.
But privacy experts warn that to those who know how to mine it, metadata discloses much more about us and our daily lives than the content of our communications.
So what is metadata? Simply put, it’s data about data. An early example is the Dewey Decimal System card catalogs that libraries use to organize books by title, author, genre and other information. In the digital age, metadata is coded into our electronic transmissions.
“Metadata is information about what communications you send and receive, who you talk to, where you are when you talk to them, the lengths of your conversations, what kind of device you were using and potentially other information, like the subject line of your emails,” said Peter Eckersley, the technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group.
Powerful computer algorithms can analyze the metadata to expose patterns and to profile individuals and their associates, Eckersley said.
“Metadata is the perfect place to start if you want to troll through millions of people’s communications to find patterns and to single out smaller groups for closer scrutiny,” he said. “It will tell you which groups of people go to political meetings together, which groups of people go to church together, which groups of people go to nightclubs together or sleep with each other.”
Metadata records of search terms and webpage visits also can reveal a log of your thoughts by documenting what you’ve been reading and researching, Eckersley said.
“That’s certainly enough to know if you’re pregnant or not, what diseases you have, whether you’re looking for a new job, whether you’re trying to figure out if the NSA is watching you or not,” he said, referring to the National Security Agency. Such information provides “a deeply intimate window into a person’s psyche,” he added.
The more Americans rely on their smartphones and the Internet, the more metadata is generated
Metadata with GPS locations, for example, can trace a teenage girl to an abortion clinic or a patient to a psychiatrist’s office, said Karen Reilly, the development director for The Tor Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit that produces technology to provide online anonymity and circumvent censorship.
Metadata can even identify a likely gun owner, she said.
“Never mind background checks, if you bring your cellphone to the gun range you probably have a gun,” Reilly said.
“People don’t realize all the information that they’re giving out,” she said. “You can try to secure it – you can use some tech tools, you can try to be a black hole online – but if you try to live your life the way people are expecting it, it’s really difficult to control the amount of data that you’re leaking all over the place.”
A former senior official of the National Security Agency said the government’s massive collection of metadata allowed the agency to construct “maps” of an individual’s daily movements, social connections, travel habits and other personal information.
“This is blanket. There is no constraint. No probable cause. No reasonable suspicion,” said Thomas Drake, who worked unsuccessfully for years to report privacy violations and massive waste at the agency to his superiors and Congress.
Metadata “is more useful than (the) content” of a telephone call, email or Internet search, Drake said in an interview. “It gets you a map over time. I get to map movements, connections, communities of interest. It’s also a tracking mechanism.”
The NSA “can easily associate” a phone number with an identity, he added. “All location information comes from a (cellular) tower. There are tower records. They are doing this every single day. It’s basically a data tap on metadata, and I can build a profile (of an individual) instantly.”
The agency has programs that also can mine the metadata of emails and other electronic information, Drake said.
With advances in data storage, he continued, the NSA is able to maintain massive amounts of metadata for as long as it wants. “This stuff is trivial to store,” he said.
Drake added that U.S. telecommunications companies are prohibited from publicly disclosing arrangements with the NSA and are protected under the Patriot Act from lawsuits. “They literally have the protection of the U.S. government from any, any lawsuit. The United States is literally turning into a surveillance state,” he said. “This is the new normal.”
At a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, FBI Director Robert Mueller said metadata obtained under Section 215 of the Patriot Act had helped authorities “connect the dots” in investigations that had prevented 10 or 12 terrorist plots in recent years. Mueller defended the collection of metadata, saying there were plenty of safeguards in place that protect Americans’ privacy. He warned against restricting or ending the program.
“What concerns me is you never know which dot is going to be key,” Mueller said. “What you want is as many dots as we can (get). If you close down a program like this, you are removing dots from the playing field.”
Kevin Thibodeaux contributed to this article.