Computer Science Professor Explains How Phone Call Metadata Can Be More Revealing Than Content

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Actor John C. Reilly

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Actor John C. Reilly talks on a cell phone while attending Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference final playoff series in Los Angeles, May 17, 2010.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the U.S. government over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. telephone records under the "business records clause" of the Patriot Act, received some strong backing on Monday. 

The NSA program that collects metadata — details including telephone numbers dialed, telephone numbers of incoming calls, and the duration of calls — is ostensibly aimed at combating terrorism without violating Americans'  Fourth Amendment right to a reasonable expectation of privacy.

On Monday Edward W. Felten, a professor of computer science and Director of Princeton's  Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP), argued that  the NSA is building a database that could reveal some of the most intimate secrets of American citizens.

“Calling patterns can reveal when we are awake and asleep; our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the Sabbath or makes a large number of calls on Christmas Day; our work habits and our social aptitude; the number of friends we have, and even our civil and political affiliations,” Mr. Felten wrote  in a legal brief filed in support of the ACLU's case.

Scott Shane of The New York Times reports that Felton added that sophisticated data analysis, which involves using software that can instantly trace chains of social connections to analyze data, can make metadata even more revealing than the contents of calls.

Felton  provided hypothetical situations, one of which lists a series of phone calls that reveal a young woman is having an abortion (and who the father his).

From the brief (via the Timothy Lee of The Washington Post):

Consider the following hypothetical example: A young woman calls her gynecologist; then immediately calls her mother; then a man who, during the past few months, she had repeatedly spoken to on the telephone after 11p.m.; followed by a call to a family planning center that also offers abortions. A likely storyline emerges that would not be as evident by examining the record of a single telephone call.

Felton explained that the  same type of identification can occur to a person who has a gambling problem; or an  NSA analyst'  ex-lover who has a new girlfriend or boyfriend; or a someone with suicidal tendencies; or if a government worker is a whistleblower.

“Americans do not expect that their government will make a note every time they pick up the phone of whom they call, precisely when they call them and for precisely how long they speak,” the ACLU argued in its motion.

Senate Intelligence Committee member  Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) bolstered that argument recently when he argued in front of Congress that he has seen no compelling evidence that the program is effective against terrorism.

Wyden added that, based on classified information he's seen, that the  v iolations of Americans' right to privacy "are more serious than have been  stated  by the intelligence comm unity."

So it appears that if the case makes it up to the Supreme Court, the ACLU will have some strong arguments behind it.



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