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Matt Blaze Examines Communications Privacy 44

Posted by Soulskill
from the still-a-lot-left-to-lose dept.
altjira writes "Matt Blaze analyzes the implications of a recent Newsweek story on the Bush administration's use of the NSA for domestic spying on communications, and questions whether the lower legal threshold for the collection of communications metadata is giving away too much to the government: 'As electronic communication pervades more of our daily lives, transaction records — metadata — can reveal quite a bit about us, indeed often much more than a few out-of-context conversations might. Aggregated into databases with other people's records (or perhaps everyone's records) and analyzed by powerful software, metadata by itself can paint a remarkably detailed picture of connections, relationships, and other patterns that could never be recovered simply from listening to the conversations themselves.'"
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Matt Blaze Examines Communications Privacy

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  • Indeed ... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Skal Tura (595728) on Sunday December 28, 2008 @10:03AM (#26249265) Homepage

    Indeed, metadata is a powerfull thing, very powerfull.

    Infact, it's metadata which matters the most. An real world example of the power of metadata is Google. Basicly, the ranking works because of metadata, originating as metadata or derived from the content of the page.

    • Re:Indeed ... (Score:5, Informative)

      by caffeinemessiah (918089) on Sunday December 28, 2008 @10:15AM (#26249329) Journal

      An real world example of the power of metadata is Google. Basicly, the ranking works because of metadata, originating as metadata or derived from the content of the page.

      While probably correct, there really isn't much substance to your comment, so I decided to add some links to one of the best examples of exploiting metadata: network analysis (or applied graph theory, depending on your bent). It's been applied to webpages, phone call records (using just who calls whom), scientific collaboration networks, social networks, and a whole bunch more. The following links make for some interesting reading about the scope and power of exploiting metadata (at least the introductions):

      PageRank, HITS: rank webpages as authoritative based on the links between them (i.e. assume that good pages link to good pages, etc.) PageRank [tugraz.at] Analyzing the web [dcg.ethz.ch] web communities based on link structure [intelligence.tuc.gr] analyzing scientific collaborations based only on patterns of co-authorship and co-citation [cornell.edu] another one like the previous [arxiv.org] (although as a computer scientist, i don't think much of mark newman, he writes well).

      Remember kids, it's popular because it works!

  • This is just another example of something that penalises innocent people who just want to communicate, while barely hindering those who are up to genuine mischief. These bills are usually designed to counter terrorism. One fatal flaw: most terrorist organisations would have someone with the technological experience to find a way around such monitoring - like routing network traffic through servers in foreign countries, or using TOR.
  • Too late (Score:5, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Sunday December 28, 2008 @10:20AM (#26249347)
    Just look at websites like Facebook and Myspace. You are basically telling those companies, through their website, who you are, who your friends are, where you like to hang out, etc. There is a rapidly decreasing margin of privacy for the government to encroach on; just quickly looking through someone's Facebook profile tells you who their friends are, and which of those friends they hang out with the most (based on which friends are most likely to appear in pictures with the target of interest). That's enough information to track down and capture a person, and nobody had to leave their office or interview anyone. The worst part? People are voluntarily giving this information to Facebook, Myspace, Friendster, and so forth.
    • I don't think many terrorists use Facebook or Myspace.
      • Re:Too late (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 28, 2008 @11:10AM (#26249635)

        It depends on what definition of "terrorist" you use.

        The Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and entered their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects, the state police chief acknowledged yesterday.

        source [washingtonpost.com]

        • Well then, I guess we can clasify spiders as terrorists because they create fear among the arachnophobic population.
      • Privacy and the right to privacy have nothing to do with terrorism either. The illegal mass wiretapping performed by the federal government had nothing to do with terrorism, and neither did the war in Iraq. Just because someone utters the words "war on terror" does not mean that everything they do is in some way related to capturing terrorists. As a case in point, several FBI agents have been discovered working undercover in peace groups, under the veil of "terrorism related investigations."
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by e-scetic (1003976)

      Hrm, not quite.

      If I decide to disappear, none of my current friends and acquaintances would know where to find me. Facebook would be useless.

      What the authorities would need to do is find all the long lost childhood friends and acquaintances from any one of the many places I used to live as a kid, assuming they would remember anything if found.

      HOWEVER, having said that, I didn't grow up on Facebook, kids these days are different. With Facebook their childhoods are pretty much on record.

      Makes me wonder if

  • ... wasn't to find terrorist, but to weigh the public response so to know how best to manipulate the public via the media, so to support political agendas... such as the war on Iraq drum banging bandwagon for public approval.

    It is because such information can be used in such a way, and inherently will be as who wouldn't make use of such information to achive their own agendas, especially when they think they are doing nothing wrong?... that such information should not exist.

    However, there is no stopping it

  • by RalphSouth (89474) on Sunday December 28, 2008 @10:42AM (#26249477)

    Personally, I try to work the words "bomb plan", "explosive" or "sulfuric acid as a catalyst" in all of my instant message conversations online. The poor analysis software must get lonely without stuff to find in most communications.

    Of course a real anarchist bomb making skeptic might also include words like "tax dodge" or "after downing street" in their mail...

    • by Bios_Hakr (68586)

      There used to be a FireFox plugin that would do a random Google search in the background. It would search for things like "fluffy kitten" or "kiddie pr0n" or "bomb + whitehouse". Things like that.

      The first plan was to completely screw up any analysis software. The second idea was to give plausible deniability if your computer was ever seized.

    • by Atrox666 (957601)
      Allah Akbar brother ;-P
  • by MikeURL (890801) on Sunday December 28, 2008 @10:52AM (#26249537) Journal
    TFA is referencing lists of transaction information that, in and of itself, is valuable stand-alone data. As such I don't think it should be called metadata.

    I know that the definition is not written in stone but in my own interpretation metadata, by definition, is useless without access to the data it describes. In the case of transaction records they are valuable even without reverence to the actual content of the calls.

    A more appropriate use of the word may be information that describes the file size, record length, etc, of the transaction records themselves. I do worry that calling transactions "metadata" might cheapen the value of those records because IMO those records ARE data.
  • Suggestion (Score:5, Interesting)

    by chrb (1083577) on Sunday December 28, 2008 @11:04AM (#26249601)

    If the government argues that meta-data isn't important and doesn't need to be protected, then the citizens should demand that the government also abide by this and release all communications meta-data relating to government employees. It might open the eyes of a few to see who their elected representatives actually spend their work days talking to. It would also massively boost the case for greater government transparency.

    • Traffic analysis (Score:3, Insightful)

      by yali (209015)
      Why not extend this test to national-security information? I bet if you ask the military, CIA, NSA, etc. whether they would consider their own "meta-data" as less sensitive than the actual content of messages, they'd say no. The history of traffic analysis [wikipedia.org] in military and foreign-policy applications is a pretty good indication of that.
  • Link analysis (Score:3, Informative)

    by crankyspice (63953) on Sunday December 28, 2008 @11:05AM (#26249609)
    Having done some considerable work with, e.g., Analyst's Notebook (http://www.i2inc.com/products/analysts_notebook/ [i2inc.com]), metadata can be an incredibly powerful tool. When you can work with the information in a flexible manner and see the patterns emerge ... Lots of things become clear, or at least point to powerful inferences.
  • by $beirdo (318326) on Sunday December 28, 2008 @11:12AM (#26249651) Homepage

    The fact of the matter is that this NSA program was illegal. The Newsweek article suggests that several high-ranking members of the Justice Department were aware that the program was illegal, and did nothing to stop it.

    Such a violation of the law represents a fundamental failure of our system of government to protect the rights of its citizenry. Because the Bush administration has willfully broken the law, the federal government no longer has the moral right or authority to govern the people of the United States.

    Barack Obama needs to take drastic steps, including impeachment and prosecution of all those within the Bush administration who have broken the law, if he wishes to restore the validity and authority of the federal government.

  • There IS no debate in the context cited. The Bill of Rights lays to rest any questions about what the .gov should be able to do. The fact that they are doing things that go AGAINST the Bill of Rights is something nobody disputes. The only debate should be about HOW to prosecute those officials who have enabled and participated in crimes against the our rights as American citizens.

    Unfortunately we can't even get to the plateau where everyone agrees something needs to be done. This country IMO is done; it

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