Who you Call is Far more Revealing than what you Say: Landau on Gov’t Spying (Democracy Now!)

Democracy Now! interviews Susan Landau, mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer, author of the book Surveillance or Security?: The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies.

Excerpt from the transcript:

“This may surprise many people, this point that metadata—just, you know, the fact of a phone call, who you called, perhaps where you made the call—can be more revealing than a transcript of the conversation itself.

SUSAN LANDAU: That’s right. That’s because a phone call—the metadata of a phone call tells what you do as opposed to what you say. So, for example, if you call from the hospital when you’re getting a mammogram, and then later in the day your doctor calls you, and then you call the surgeon, and then when you’re at the surgeon’s office you call your family, it’s pretty clear, just looking at that pattern of calls, that there’s been some bad news. If there’s a tight vote in Congress, and somebody who’s wavering on the edge, you discover that they’re talking to the opposition, you know which way they’re vote is going.

One of my favorite examples is, when Sun Microsystems was bought by Oracle, there were a number of calls that weekend before. One can imagine just the trail of calls. First the CEO of Sun and the CEO of Oracle talk to each other. Then probably they both talk to their chief counsels. Then maybe they talk to each other again, then to other people in charge. And the calls go back and forth very quickly, very tightly. You know what’s going to happen. You know what the announcement is going to be on Monday morning, even though you haven’t heard the content of the calls. So that metadata is remarkably revealing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, John Negroponte, the nation’s first director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, has defended the surveillance program and the collection of metadata. He described metadata as, quote, “like knowing what’s on the outside of an envelope.” Susan Landau, your response to that?

SUSAN LANDAU: That’s not really true. That was the case when we had black telephones that weighed several pounds and sat on the living room table or the hall table, and you knew that there was a phone call from one house to another house. Now everybody carries cellphones with them. And so, the data is, when I call you, I know that I’m talking to you, but I have no idea where you are. It’s the phone company who has that data now. And that data is far more revealing than what’s on the outside of an envelope. As I said earlier, it’s what you do, not what you say. And because we’re carrying the cellphones with us and making calls all during the day, that it’s very, very revelatory.”

13 Responses

  1. Political realism says data mining is such a powerful tool that it is here to stay; all governments will use it routinely in a few years. So, what to do? Data mining of government communications, of course, and its daily publication. Transparency and accountability, while difficult, because of the government’s powers to hide and punish, is the only meaningful response I can think of. Or do you see it differently?

  2. Susan Landau illustrates a great example of the importance of who called vs what was said. One can project forward that the radical anti-abortion states would want and act on the information gleaned from metadata. So would the DEA.

  3. As a graduate political science student in the 60′s I remember a paper written about the ‘cognitive dissonance’ model of behavioral analysis. It involved the voluntary participation of a group who had what we would call today’networked’ relations between each other — friends, family, work associates. Questions were asked periodically concerning who they expected to vote for in an upcoming election. Other questions were asked about general social and political views.

    At the end of the survey period a computer, using the cognitive dissonance model, picked who each individual was expected to vote for. The results were that the computer was a better predictor of behavior than the individuals themselves as a whole.

    Of course such models have become the core of marketing and political analysis today.

    Today one doesn’t actually have to know very much at all about any individuals preferences to predict their behavior better than they can themselves, so long as enough is known about their ‘friends’.

  4. “This may surprise many people, this point that metadata—just, you know, the fact of a phone call, who you called, perhaps where you made the call—can be more revealing than a transcript of the conversation itself.”

    This would be “surprising” to only the most obtuse. It is hardly a revelation that a pattern of calls from, say, Colorado to Yemen, particularly to a cell No. in Yemen that belongs to a known AQAP operative, would be far more important to obtain a warrant to tap into than a call from someone in Colorado to her medical specialist.

  5. Landau’s example is a really great one about how law enforcement could leap to erroneous conclusions on no evidence and then make people’s life miserable trying to find corroboration.

    If I’d be at a hospital, getting a mammogram, and later that day my doctor’s office calls me to say it’s all clear (knowing I’d been worried), and I call the surgeon to ask if I’d left my car keys there, while undressing. Then I go over to the surgeon’s office and no, the key are not there, so I call my family (one call each to my husband and each child) to find out if they’ve seen them.
    Bang, false positive, the NSA starts sending me ads for tamoxifen.

    Being a reasonably creative person, I can construct an alternative narrative for any phone pattern suggested. And that is exactly the problem with metadata – it proves guilt only by association and gives the state free reign to investigate anyone for anything, based on their imagination.

    Terrible idea.

    • Who has said that law enforcement is using this NSA data? No one, because they aren’t. Very few LE agencies can get warrants to tap phones, etc., and in only in certain type of cases. So, chill.

      The NSA surveillance is for identifying individuals that want to do harm to the United States of America.

      What abuses do you know of? None, I bet, even though no person and no agency is perfect….

      • We don’t know with whom the data base is shared, but interagency cooperation on such matters is common now and a facility in Virginia allows FBI/ CIA cross-access.

        We don’t know of abuses because the whole thing is secret, not because there aren’t abuses.

        The NSA program may or may not always be used for its announced purposes.

        The United States of America is founded on the principle of being suspicious of people in power and ensuring that they are checked and balanced. This program is not, and is therefore Actonian.

      • The No Fly List has over 89,000 names (link to no-fly-list.com). Check to see if you are on it. And take a look at these videos:
        link to cbsnews.com
        link to abcnews.go.com

        The terrorist watch list, Official name:Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) (www.nctc.gov/docs/Tide_Fact_Sheet.pdf), has 845,000 names on it. The combined population of North and South Waziristan is less than that. The combined active duty strength of the Army and Marine Corp is less than that.

        Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev (older brother) was at one time on TIDE but taken off. There was a public outcry about this – we had him in our sites and let him go. At the time I believe there were 700,000 names on the list, Look at this as “700,000 red flags”, or “700,000 dots” waiting for connection. Don’t you think all the kings data, and all the kings geeks would have hard time predicting what one red flag/dot would do several years down the road?

      • Manus-with-the-nifty-owl-avatar, you just asked me which abuses do I know of regarding to a program that is so secret that talking about it is illegal.

        That’s very funny.

        Tell me about all the times it was used, we can sort them into two piles – legitimate and abuse.

        Chill? How about freezing the program until it’s reviewed?

  6. Isn’t the collection of metadata like building your own haystack in the hope of finding a needle? By the time they do, someone has been pricked by that needle they were hoping to find, as in the Boston bombings? And wouldn’t you need to know about the needle in the first place in order to find it? If you already know about the needle, particularly where it is, whats the point of the haystack? Isn’t this all sort of ass-backwards?

    By the way, someone needs to remind Obama, congress, and the the various intelligence agencies that Al Qaeda didn’t shoot the children of Newtown. Or the people in the movie theater. Or the girl that attended Obama’s inauguration. Or…

    • Chris, I think we are building haystacks to hide our latest global weapon system, for lack of abetter name: “Presidential Policy Directive 20″, link to guardian.co.uk

      PPD-20 directs all the applicable agencies to go all out in developing defensive and offensive cyber capability. The offensive part is termed “cyber effect”.
      Definition:”Cyber Effect: The manipulation, disruption, denial,degradation, or destruction of computers, information or communications systems, networks, physical or virtual infrastructure controlled by computers or information systems,or information resident thereon.”

      You don’t need that big Utah thing to find the next Underwear Bomber, but for PPD-20, it’s essential.

  7. Recently I looked for pants at an online shopping website. A short while later I was looking at a Hungarian website and there was an add for the very pants company I had previously looked at. Which is to say that most of the discussion we hear about “data mining” and “metadata” has been off the mark and misses the real point. Data mining and metadata are marketing tools that use “network analysis” to build up a picture of what a buyer’s interests, desires, and behaviors are. By aggregating not only the many – many – sites, books, journals, newpapers, articles we go to, read, and listen to in any day; and by linking these to who we contact by pnone, email, etc., all these allow a point by point picture or 3 dimensional scupture to be constructed of what any individual thinks and acts on – we can easily see who that person is. The surveilance state – the panopticon – is now able to create profiles of potentially “dangerous”. We are being “profiled”, and sadly we are readily acquiescing in that project.

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