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.”