Saturday, December 24, 2005

Meta-Snooping: Tag -- You're It

Lots of hue-and-cry about the Bush administration and the NSA doing various spy stuff to catch terrorists before they terrorize. Lot's of drama on both sides: "We need these tools to catch terrorists." "You're trampling on people's rights." "Would you rather have a repeat of 9/11?" "I'd rather have my prviace!"

Not going to get into it here.

What I am going to get into is a really, really interesting line in a NYT article (not sure if you need to be a subscriber anymore) about the latest "data mining" that the NSA is doing. I'm going to summarize and quote from it heavily r.e. my points (big surprise, there, eh?), so don't worry too much.

The basic gist is that the NSA has been working with various telecommunications companies to get their switch data in order to analyze traffic patterns to help identify possible terrorist activities. Here's a quote (emphasis mine):

A former technology manager at a major telecommunications company said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the leading companies in the industry have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists.

"All that data is mined with the cooperation of the government and shared with them, and since 9/11, there's been much more active involvement in that area," said the former manager, a telecommunications expert who did not want his name or that of his former company used because of concern about revealing trade secrets.

Such information often proves just as valuable to the government as eavesdropping on the calls themselves, the former manager said.

"If they get content, that's useful to them too, but the real plum is going to be the transaction data and the traffic analysis," he said. "Massive amounts of traffic analysis information - who is calling whom, who is in Osama Bin Laden's circle of family and friends - is used to identify lines of communication that are then given closer scrutiny."

Got that? The content itself is "useful," but the "real plum" is the "transaction data and the traffic analysis." In other words, the metadata (the tags) and the knowledge management.

Let's have one more quote:

Historically, the American intelligence community has had close relationships with many communications and computer firms and related technical industries. But the N.S.A.'s backdoor access to major telecommunications switches on American soil with the cooperation of major corporations represents a significant expansion of the agency's operational capability, according to current and former government officials.

And one last one:

Phil Karn, a computer engineer and technology expert at a major West Coast telecommunications company, said access to such switches would be significant. "If the government is gaining access to the switches like this, what you're really talking about is the capability of an enormous vacuum operation to sweep up data," he said.

The government's position is that since they're not really listening to the conversations -- the content, the data itself -- it's not really an invasion of privacy. It's not snooping. They don't need a warrant. They're just looking for "patterns."

Er... well... just so we're clear, these neat little dots on the screen you're looking at are just patterns. Just recognizable bits of electrons in a slightly more coherent order than the ones around them, as far as your eyeballs and brain are concerned. Voices modulate the air in wave patterns. The gun in my sock drawer is part of a complex patter. Etc. All that crazy stuff.

The assumption is, I believe, that once an official has sufficient metadata to make a decision (i.e., "these are bad guys") that he will then obtain proper warrants, do the due dilligence, get the white hats, and go in and stop the bad things from happening. So purpose of the collection of metadata is to then gain data and then use that to make knowledge decisions which will have real world (hopefully positive) consequences; classic learning theory. Which is all good.

Same as how we use eBay to search for deals on kids clothes. Follow the simile:

  • eBay stores price/product metadata; NSA stores call metadata

  • eBay and NSA both perform sorting/storing operations

  • Customers (eBay = public, NSA = government) scan metadata

  • Customers make decisions based on metadata

  • Customers take virtual action (eBay = order online, NSA = initiate warrants)

  • Real world consequences (eBay = you get Pooh onesy, NSA = arrests made)

Again... it's all good. Right? Using metadata to make knowledge decisions about content and actions.

Except on eBay, nobody's storing metadata about my kids' clothes without my consent.

Oops. I just "got into it" a bit, didn't I?

Allright. I'm backing off. I don't really want to get political. But I do want to make the point that metadata is just as much a piece of information about you as is the data which it informs. Think about the following questions:

  • How much did you pay for that car?

  • How old are you?

  • What do you weigh?

  • What's your salary?

  • Do you color your hair?

  • What kind of perscription drugs do you take?

All those questions feel like data questions, don't they? Real questions. Questions that, it many contexts, you wouldn't want to have to necessarily have to answer.

Are they data questions or metadata questions? Well... it depends on whom you ask, what kind of system you querry, what the fields in the database are, what the key fields are and how you perform the search. And if the questions are:

  • Who did you talk to on the phone?

  • How long did you talk to them for?

  • What times did the calls start and end?

  • Who did they call right afterwards?

  • Where were you when you made the calls?

Those questions are all metadata questions from a telco standpoint. The data itself -- the phone call, the words you spoke -- is encoded in the voice traffic. Right? But is that the whole message? How much of what you do, say, buy, earn, eat, live, smoke, dope, etc. is data, and how much is meta?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and warp the most famous quote from one of my heroes, Marshall McLuhan:

The meta is the message

So... if the government can tag you... that's the same as a tap.

And... Tag -- You're it.

UPDATE: John Battelle's Searchblog has a good post on the NYT's story, too. Read the comments as well. As we've seen in the general discussions in the news, there are lots of folks who don't mind their privacy being infringed... yet.

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