Your Metadata: Here’s What It Can Reveal About You

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One of the most oft-heard claims to come out of officials mouths since this whole NSA-PRISM thing first became public knowledge is that the spooks are ‘only’ collecting metadata, rather than reading the content of your emails. But does that lack of readable content mean the NSA knows any less about you and those you’re closely associated with? Not at all, or at least not if believe that the MIT’s latest research on the subject has any merit.

A team at the MIT Media Lab recently developed software called Immersion, which has been designed to grab all of that metadata in your Gmail account and build up an extraordinary visual map that links the people in your life whilst emphasizing how strong those relationships are.

Writing in a blog post titled “Me and my Metadata,” MIT researcher Ethan Zuckerman explains how he granted Immersion access to the From, To, CC and Timestamp fields in his Gmail account, whilst specifically ruling out any subject lines and contents of his emails. The result was an astounding visualisation of his social network and most intimate contacts, which Zuckerman then discussed in detail:

“The largest node in the graph, the person I exchange the most email with, is my wife, Rachel. I find this reassuring, but [the researchers] have told me that people’s romantic partners are rarely their largest node.”

“Because I travel a lot, Rachel and I have a heavily email-dependent relationship, but many people’s romantic relationships are conducted mostly face to face and don’t show up clearly in metadata. But the prominence of Rachel in the graph is, for me, a reminder that one of the reasons we might be concerned about metadata is that it shows strong relationships, whether those relationships are widely known or are secret.”

There’s lots more too. For example, the visualization highlights the varying intensities of Zuckerman’s relationship with various students – some are far stronger than others, which could be for a variety of reasons such as they need more attention than others, or because they just prefer communicating via email rather than face-to-face. These relationships are actually irrelevant to us, but as Zuckerman writes, together they serve to paint a “revealing portrait of oneself”, that shows us just how powerful this metadata stuff is.

The real crunch is that while Zuckerman had to give Immersion explicit permission to be able to access his metadata, this is exactly the same set of data that Google routinely ‘shares’ with security agencies and who knows how many kinds of third-parties. Even worse is that these security agencies have access to not just yours, but everyone’s email account (Hotmail and Yahoo also), meaning that they can come up with all kinds of connections and patterns that could link you to god knows who or what. Not to mention they can also access your clickstream (a log of every website you’ve ever visited), and all without so much as a warrant.

Of course, you don’t need to be worried because you’ve got nothing to hide. Have you? Except maybe, for the fact that you spend a lot of time looking at certain websites that others may find, well, less-than-tasteful? Or the fact that one of your most prominent online ‘relationships’ seems to be with someone who’s not a co-worker or a family member (suspicious)? But that’s okay, it’s only the NSA who’s looking, right? Or could some random geek like Ed Snowden also see this kind of information? Err…

If this isn’t an Orwellian nightmare already, it’s getting almighty close to being that way. It’s one thing for companies like Google to use this kind of data to pursue their commercial interests (advertising and so on), but when third parties are allowed to assemble all kinds of patterns about you that you’re blissfully unaware of, patterns that may one day come back to bite you, it’s another matter altogether.