Monday, June 10, 2013

Kieran Healy - Using Metadata to find Paul Revere

The US of A has been rocked (I truly hope!) by revelations of the extent of its snooping program.  In its defense, the officials say that all they do, for all phone calls in the nation, is to collect the calling number, the called number and the duration of the call; they do not get anything about the content of the call.  So what is there to worry about?

The information that the government collects has been termed as metadata - information about the phone call.  In this context, the content of the call - a recording or a transcript of what was said - would be data.  

I should point out that all telephone companies collect this metadata - they need it in order to bill, and your phone's metadata shows up on your detailed phone bill.  What is new is that the government now gets all this data, from all phone companies, automatically, instead of requiring a court-granted warrant that would be granted at most for a limited set or class of telephones (e.g., all public phones in Baltimore, in one famous case.)

So what's to worry?

In a post that I wish that I had written, Kieran Healy shows just how such information collected in a simple case could have been used by the British to identify American patriot Paul Revere as a lynchpin of the revolutionary movement.

You can find the post here, and I strongly recommend reading it.

We as a society may decide that this is what we want to do, after all.  But since open discussion of this universal sweep of metadata will not tip off any person or group that they are being investigated,  the decision needs to be made **after** a very public debate, and not in the confines of secure government offices.