Snooping dog

Snoop dog!

Let’s reread the Fourth Amendment (my emphasis).

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

I’ve been fascinated by the comments from government officials that the only thing they’re collecting about us is metadata, not the content of our emails or phone calls. So therefore, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply. The Guardian’s John Naughton says the NSA/GCHQ metadata reassurances are breathtakingly cynical.

Over the past two weeks, I have lost count of the number of officials and government ministers who, when challenged about internet surveillance by GCHQ and the NSA, try to reassure their citizens by saying that the spooks are “only” collecting metadata, not “content”. Only two conclusions are possible from this: either the relevant spokespersons are unbelievably dumb or they are displaying a breathtaking contempt for their citizenry.

The Guardian also provides a handy exploration of “metadata” and lets you check what common social media services (phone, email, Facebook, Web browser, etc.) metadata reveals about you. Scroll down on the page for an example, using a fascinating case study of the Petraeus scandal and how the FBI identified Paula Broadwell as Petraeus’s paramour.

Viewing a collection of your phone and email metadata can reveal your friends or romantic relationships, your favorite restaurant or barber or dentist, whether you bet on the ponies or have a medical condition or need a payday loan or physical therapy or a psychiatrist. The government almost doesn’t need to see the content to build a fairly comprehensive picture of your life and habits.

If you’re skeptical, go see how your email metadata paints a profile of you with Immersion: a people-centric view of your email life using only your metadata. Immersion only works for Gmail at the moment, but they also have a demo you can try if you don’t use Gmail or don’t want to use your personal account.

Were you also aware that every piece of snail-mail is photographed?
U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement.
(again, my emphasis)

The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers. Highly secret, it seeped into public view last month when the F.B.I. cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It enables the Postal Service to retrace the path of mail at the request of law enforcement. No one disputes that it is sweeping.

“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasch, who started a computer crimes unit in the fraud section of the criminal division of the Justice Department and worked on several fraud cases using mail covers. “Now it seems to be, ‘Let’s record everyone’s mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.’ Essentially you’ve added mail covers on millions of Americans.”

Judges have ruled that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for information printed on the outside of a sealed envelope. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have used these court rulings to justify the N.S.A.’s surveillance programs, saying the electronic monitoring of only metadata amounts to the same thing as a mail cover that reads the outside of an envelope. But if you pay attention, you can see that even your junk mail, increasingly targeted by age (those AARP or hearing aid vendor solicitations) or previous transactions and habits (your last oil change or local restaurant meal), can reveal a lot about you.

But it’s only metadata! I’m reassured. Aren’t you?

Image by bastiyxc, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."