The US intelligence services have long been monitoring citizens all over the world, saying that it’s for counter-terrorism reasons. Everyone is a suspect. And it’s not just intelligence agencies that are crazy about metadata and traffic analysis – many companies are too. But what exactly can intelligence services and companies do with it all?
It’s long since been common knowledge that intelligence services such as the NSA engage in the blanket gathering of telephone, email, and internet data in and out of individual countries coming from and going to anywhere in the world. On top of this, US intelligence services have access to Google’s, Facebook’s, Amazon’s, and other US companies’ networks which are also popular among many millions of users. For some time now, FBI investigators have been permitted under Rule 41 to hack and scour the contents of computers wherever in the world they are located. They just need any old judge to grant them a search warrant. Under President Trump, further encroachments of this type loom large. After all, the US President himself sided firmly with the law enforcement agents who vehemently demanded access to data in the FBI versus Apple dispute about unlocking content on a confiscated iPhone. He also called Edward Snowden a traitor who deserves the death penalty. The blanket gathering and storage of metadata by the NSA is also something Trump welcomes emphatically – even calling for laws to be tightened. In general, control over the internet seems to play an important role for Trump – something that should set the alarm bells ringing among privacy campaigners. Mention metadata or traffic analysis to US spies, and you can literally see them drooling at the mouth. This metadata doesn’t even concern any specific details, but information that allows deductions to be made about a particular behavior. Here are some examples:
- Who talked to whom on the phone, when, and for how long
- How often certain people communicate with each other
- Which websites a person has visited
Here’s why intelligence services are crazy about metadata
Intelligence services love metadata as it’s so easy to evaluate and analyze electronically. An incredible amount of detailed information can be obtained from these analyses. This is because even if there are no specific details, the metadata can reveal a fair bit, such as who is communicating with suspicious people and how frequently. A study by Stanford University showed that just by analyzing metadata, researchers were able to learn about volunteers’ specific illnesses and drug consumption habits. On top of that, sophisticated algorithms make it easy to identify any internet user and assign certain metadata to them. But what’s so bad about the NSA knowing who you’re calling, emailing, or where you’re going? What’s wrong with an agent in Fort Meade knowing what some guy in a random city talked about with his mom recently? The famous German tech blogger Sascha Lobo recently explained in an interview with German weekly news magazine Stern that: “Based on this metadata alone, you can find out whether someone is going to get the flu tomorrow before they know themselves. You analyze the cell phone. You analyze the patterns of movement. And with a very high degree of probability, you can find out whether this person isn’t moving around as much because they’re going to be ill tomorrow.”
What’s possible with metadata?
You can see what you can do with metadata by doing your own tests such as if you have a Google Gmail, Yahoo, or Microsoft Exchange account. Researchers at MIT developed an analysis program called Immersion that scrutinizes every contact: Who is doing what with whom, who emailed whom and when, and who introduced who to whom? You can try it out using the demo version. There’s no doubting that the NSA has even more powerful analysis tools at its disposal, which allow agents to compile vast dossiers quickly on anyone while also enabling them to expose suspects who previously weren’t on anyone’s radar. Things that would catch their attention include talking about weapons and explosives, googling them, or exchanging encrypted messages. In principle, anyone who’s not a citizen of one of the Five Eyes alliance countries (USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) is under general suspicion. They are assiduously bugged, snooped on, and monitored. “You need the haystack to find the needle”, said NSA chief Keith Alexander explaining the principle.
Who is doing what with whom and where are the connections? The email analysis tool Immersion shows everything in revealing clarity.
Isn’t that good for our safety, though?
Whether surveillance helps citizens or harms freedom is an excellent point to argue over.
Pro: The intelligence services boast repeatedly that mass surveillance has already allowed them to thwart terrorist attacks frequently. Whether that’s true or not is difficult to prove.
Contra: Critics fear that misinterpreting data may lead to grave mistakes, such as false accusations and arrests. In connection with this, Sascha Lobo claimed that there are already lists of people who are deemed to be potential terrorists. If you get given a certain status, you can say goodbye to ever flying again or being a customer of certain American companies. Lobo also talked about a case where a customer couldn’t open a bank account. Why? Because his first name is Osama. Apparently, he was blocked because the bank checked US lists.