When National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed the agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ communications metadata, surveillance apologists argued that there was nothing to worry about because the amount of information the government could obtain from the raw data was minimal. But new research out from Stanford University reveals that metadata is capable of providing far more information than the government let on, including clues about a person’s “medical conditions, financial and legal connections, and even whether they own a gun.”
Participants in the Stanford research installed an app on their cellular devices to provide crowdsourced data to the university that helped researchers investigate just how much information is transferred along with so-called metadata.
From a pool of 33,688 individual phone numbers called by the 546 study volunteers, the researchers were able to positively identify specific individuals 18 percent of the time.
The researchers were also able to identify calls to medical facilities, gun shops, religious organizations and activists groups, among other things.
In most cases they were able to learn much more by conducting simple Google searches on individuals and organizations they were able to identify with the metadata collection.
The researchers said that calling patterns also painted portraits of individual habits and belief systems.
“During our analysis, we encountered a number of patterns that were highly indicative of sensitive activities or traits.” Jonathon Mayer and Patrick Mutchler wrote in a blog post about their research.
Here are some things that the researchers learned about individual participants:
Participant A communicated with multiple local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service, and a hotline for a pharmaceutical used solely to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis.
Participant B spoke at length with cardiologists at a major medical center, talked briefly with a medical laboratory, received calls from a pharmacy, and placed short calls to a home reporting hotline for a medical device used to monitor cardiac arrhythmia.
Participant C made a number of calls to a firearm store that specializes in the AR semiautomatic rifle platform. They also spoke at length with customer service for a firearm manufacturer that produces an AR line.
In a span of three weeks, Participant D contacted a home improvement store, locksmiths, a hydroponics dealer, and a head shop.
Participant E had a long, early morning call with her sister. Two days later, she placed a series of calls to the local Planned Parenthood location. She placed brief additional calls two weeks later, and made a final call a month after.
If two graduate students were able to do that with Google and an app, imagine what the NSA is up to.