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Why Metadata Is Shaping The Future of Privacy

Aired 6/7/13 on KPBS News.

Yesterday, we learned that the U.S. government has been collecting phone records on all Verizon customers since April, and probably longer. That's according to a secret court order obtained by British newspaper The Guardian. Privacy defenders are fuming. But lawmakers defend the surveillance, saying that government agencies are only gathering "metadata." KPBS science and technology reporter David Wagner called a local privacy expert to find out what exactly metadata is, and what the government can learn from it.

This week, IT jargon entered the national conversation. Over the last few days, we've learned that the United States government has been collecting phone records on all Verizon customers since at least April, and probably a lot longer. A secret court order obtained by the Guardian confirmed what many civil liberties watchdogs have suspected for years. The National Security Agency is amassing phone records on millions of Americans in bulk, regardless of suspicion.

Photo by John Fraissinet

Cell phone metadata can easily be used to track where calls are coming from, and where they're connecting.

Additional reports have also unearthed a clandestine national security program that has been mining the personal online content of millions of Americans since 2007.

Privacy defenders are fuming. But lawmakers like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have defended the surveillance by saying that government agents are only gathering "metadata." As the chair of the Senate's Intelligence committee, Feinstein insisted "there is no content involved" in the government's phone call surveillance.

But what exactly is metadata? What can the government learn from it? And why has the term suddenly appeared at the center of so many debates on the future of privacy? To get answers on those questions, I called Pam Dixon, director of the San Diego-based think tank World Privacy Forum.

"Metadata, very simply put, is everything around the conversation but not including the conversation," says Dixon. "For example, the phone numbers of both parties. Where you were when you made the call and where that person who you called was. How long your call was. When you called them."

Put another way: No, the government can't eavesdrop on your late-night pizza delivery orders. They'd need a warrant for that. But metadata gives them access to nearly everything else, like your location, your number, and how long the conversation lasted. They can use that information to paint a very detailed picture of your life.

We know for sure that Verizon records have been hauled in for the last three months, and probably a lot longer. Senator Feinstein admitted as much when she told MSNBC, "There is nothing new in this program. The fact of the matter is, that this was a routine three-month approval under seal that was leaked."

Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks during an appearance in downtown San Diego on...
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Above: Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks during an appearance in downtown San Diego on March 23, 2011.

The order requiring Verizon to turn over records on all their customers didn't come from a typical court. It was handed down from the FISA court, a secretive judicial entity authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and expanded under the post-9/11 Patriot Act.

"The way that the FISA court collected this information is through what's called a business records provision," says Dixon. In the wake of the Patriot Act, this so-called transactional information is not protected as private information. That's why metadata is such a significant term — if separates what the government can and can't obtain without a warrant. Dixon thinks the terms currently attached to metadata, words like "business" and "transactional," are misnomers. "These are actually very personal records."

Dixon says we should get used to hearing the word metadata. Going forward, the question of what is and what isn't metadata will shape American privacy law. "That exact question is under discussion by some of the best minds in privacy," says Dixon.

In fact, the line between non-private metadata and content protected by the Fourth Amendment is already forming important distinctions in another facet of the government's surveillance program. On Thursday, The Washington Post revealed that the NSA has also been tapping into the servers of giant tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook since 2007. That probing, undertaken by a previously covert NSA program called PRISM, is different from the Verizon case because it accesses actual content, like emails and online search histories, not just the metadata.

"Metadata is a very important thing to watch out for," says Dixon. Government officials say that sifting through metadata helps them track down terrorists and foil potential attacks. They insist that this information doesn't breech any one person's privacy. But Dixon thinks metadata gives government agents more than enough clues to hone in on specific individuals. She says, "It is absolute computer child's play."

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 7, 2013 at 10:34 a.m. ― 3 years, 8 months ago

Sen Feinstein, as someone who has supported you for years, I have to say shame on you. You are better than this. This is a disgrace.

This week has been horrendous for civil liberties.

The Supreme Court ruled our DNA can be collected and put into a database even if we aren't convicted of a crime.

The government can collect phone and email data from citizens and store it.

People want security cameras on every corner to prevent "terrorist activities".

Connect the dots here people, we have an expectation of privacy no longer in this country.

And it's not a partisan issue, republicans and democrats are equally implicated here.

To my fellow Obama supporters, please think about this. I trust Feinstein and Obama that the data won't be misused. But what if, in the future, we get some crazed idiot elected like another Joseph McCarthy? This data will all still be there, right at their fingerprints. Can you imagine what McCarthy's 50s-era witch-hunts would have been like if he had access to databases like this?

People of all political backgrounds should be very troubled over this. We were kept in the dark as our personal, private data was fed to the government.

Thank goodness for good, solid journalists like those who un-earthed this and thank goodness for the ACLU which has come out against this and I hope we will see legal action against the government soon.

And shame on partisan gargoyles like Mr. Issa who are wasting time on non-issue partisan crap with his poorly-run "hearings" while real issues of violation of the 4th amendment like this have been occuing with his full knowledge all along! This illustrates the absurd perversion of priorities in Washington.

I have always been and still am someone who believes in government. We need government for national defense, large infrastructure, quality and fair healthcare, and I am a firm believer that there are many things the government can do well that nobody else in the private sector could - such as delivery of social security and Medicare, two social programs that have successfully delivered as they were planned to for millions of Americans over decades. SS and Medicare are an example of good government doing what it should.

With all that said, however, there are certain things a government should NOT be doing. And this week has put a spotlight on these things. I am no "anti-government nut" as anyone who is familiar with my posts knows, but I have to admit I have rarely been as weary and disappointed with my government as I have been this week.

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Avatar for user 'muckapoo1'

muckapoo1 | June 7, 2013 at 10:36 a.m. ― 3 years, 8 months ago

Welcome to Un-united Socialist States of America. Government has a 12% approval rating and will do anything to protect themselves. The Fourth Amendment is dead. It was sold for the veiled promise of security. This Administration is as bad as any Soviet Dictatorship of the past.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 7, 2013 at 10:39 a.m. ― 3 years, 8 months ago

And President Obama, ironically, is meeting with Mr. Jinping today just to the north of here in a picturesque hollywood-regency style California mansion. What credibility does the President have to lecture his Chinese counterpart about open societies and privacy rights with what has been un-earthed here?

"Do as we say, not as we do President Xi"

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 7, 2013 at 10:45 a.m. ― 3 years, 8 months ago

Muckapoo, please stop with the socialist crap.

This isn't about socialism, it's more similar to the seeds of fascism.

Are you aware that the one sitting member of congress who actually calls himself a socialist is one of the FEW congressional voices who has come out AGAINST this?

“As one of the few members of Congress who consistently voted against the Patriot Act, I expressed concern at the time of passage that it gave the government far too much power to spy on innocent United State citizens and provided for very little oversight or disclosure. Unfortunately, what I said turned out to be exactly true."

- Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, self-proclaimed socialist, and one of very few honest people in elected government today.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 7, 2013 at noon ― 3 years, 8 months ago

"President Xi, we spy on our citizens in the United States too, but we don't do it to the extent you do (yet?), so we are better and you need to stop."

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | June 7, 2013 at 1:32 p.m. ― 3 years, 8 months ago

It is fitting that Xi and Obama are meeting right now. I'm sure their conversation will be very friendly, even punctuated with laughter, as they discuss issues of government control and civil rights.

Plus Feinstein is now openly defending Obama's destruction of civil rights. I guess she's emboldened by the total control of government and her supremacy in it.

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Avatar for user 'muckapoo1'

muckapoo1 | June 8, 2013 at 9:43 a.m. ― 3 years, 8 months ago

With all of these attacks on privacy, It makes me wonder if we are not being spied on in our homes. What if the sleazy Chinese manufacturers have already teamed up with the NSA? What if there are chips hidden in appliances from China? Heck, our government hid black boxes in cars a few years ago until mechanics blew the whistle. This is a mean and nasty group of thugs running this country right now. They lie at every turn, from Benghazi to the IRS. They care only for themselves and the future power they need to control us. I see their latest attack on the press as a statement of their boldness.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | June 9, 2013 at 5 p.m. ― 3 years, 8 months ago

"They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people. That doesn't help them. That's against their interests. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting screwed.

You know what they want? Obedient workers. ­People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept it all."

-George Carlin

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