#027 Metadata and Mass Surveillance


Steph: This is an excerpt from Permanent Record by Edward Snowden, beginning on page 178.

The term “MASS surveillance” is more clear to me, and I think to most people, than the government’s preferred “bulk collection,” which to my mind threatens to give a falsely fuzzy impression of the agency’s work. “Bulk collection” makes it sound like a particularly busy post office or sanitation department, as opposed to a historic effort to achieve total access to–and clandestinely take possession of–the records of all digital communications in existence.

But even once the common ground of terminology is established, misperceptions can still abound. Most people even today, tend to think of mass surveillance in terms of content–the actual words they use when they make a phone call or write an email. When they find out that the government actually cares comparatively little about that content, they tend to care comparatively little about government surveillance. This relief is understandable, to a degree, due to what each of us must regard as the uniquely revealing and intimate nature of our communications: the sound of our voice, almost as personal as a thumbprint; the inimitable facial expression we put on in a selfie sent by text. The unfortunate truth, however, is that the content of our communications is rarely as revealing as its other elements–the unwritten, unspoken information that can expose the broader context and patterns of behavior.

The NSA calls this “metadata.” The term’s prefix, “meta,” which traditionally is translated as “above” or “beyond,” is here used in the sense of “about” : metadata is data about data. It is, more accurately, data that is made by data–a cluster of tags and markers that allow data to be useful. The most direct way of thinking about metadata, however, is as “activity data,” all the records of all the things you do on your devices, and all the things your devices do on their own. Take a phone call for example: it’s metadata might include the date and time of the call, the call’s duration, the number from which the call was made, the number being called, and their locations. An email’s metadata might include information about what type of computer it was generated on, where and when, who the computer belonged to, who sent the email, who received it, where and when it was sent and received, and who if anyone besides the sender and recipient accessed it, and where and when. Metadata can tell your surveillant the address you slept at last night, and what time you got up this morning. It reveals every place you visited during your day and how long you spent there. It shows who you were in touch with, and who was in touch with you.

It’s this fact that obliterates any government claim that metadata is somehow not a direct window into the substance of the communication. With the dizzying volume of digital communications in the world, there is simply no way that every phone call could be listened to or email could be read. Even if it were feasible, however, it still wouldn’t be useful, and any way, metadata makes this unnecessary by winnowing the field. This is why it’s best to regard metadata not as some benign abstraction, but as the very essence of content: it is precisely the first line of information that the party surveilling you requires.

There’s another thing, too: content is usually defined as something that you knowingly produce. You know what you’re saying during a phone call, or what you’re writing in an email, but you have hardly any control over the metadata you produce, because it is generated automatically. Just as it’s collected, stored, and analyzed by machine, it’s made by machine, too, without your participation or even consent. Your devices are constantly communicating for you whether you want them to or not. And, unlike the humans you communicate with of your own volition, your devices don’t withhold private information or use codewords in an attempt to be discrete. They merely ping the nearest cell phone towers with signals that never lie.

One major irony here is that law, which always lags behind technological innovation by at least a generation, gives substantially more protections to a communications content than to its metadata–and yet intelligence agencies are far more interested in the metadata, the activity records that allow them both the “big picture” ability to analyze data at scale, and the “little picture” ability to make perfect maps, chronologies, and associative synopses of an individual person’s life, from which they presume to extrapolate predictions of behavior. In sum, metadata can tell your surveillant virtually everything they’d ever want or need to know about you, except what’s actually going on inside your head.


Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company New York (2019)

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