June 20, 2013

Government spying: Metadata is key to all of your secrets

By LINDSAY WISE and JONATHAN S. LANDAY McClatchy Washington Bureau

If you tweet a picture from your living room using your smartphone, you're sharing far more than your new hairdo or the color of the wallpaper. You're potentially revealing the exact coordinates of your house to anyone on the Internet.

Cell Phone
click image to enlarge

Smartphones are a part of any Americans’ lives, but few realize that their phone reveals a trove of personal information – from travel habits to consumer choices and preferences.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

Edward Snowden, 29, is accused of disclosing data on National Security Agency programs.

WATCHDOG: SECURITY CHECK ON SNOWDEN MAY HAVE BEEN FLAWED

WASHINGTON - A government watchdog testified Thursday there may have been problems with the security clearance background check conducted on the 29-year-old federal contractor who disclosed previously secret National Security Agency programs for collecting phone records and Internet data.

Appearing at a Senate hearing, Patrick McFarland, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's inspector general, said USIS, the company that conducted the security clearance investigation of former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, is now under investigation itself.

McFarland declined to say what triggered the inquiry of USIS or whether the probe is related to Snowden. But when asked by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., if there were any concerns about the USIS background check on Snowden, McFarland answered: "Yes, we do believe that there may be some problems."

McFarland declined after the Senate hearing to describe to reporters the type of investigation his office is conducting. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she was told the inquiry is a criminal investigation related "to USIS' systemic failure to adequately conduct investigations under its contract."

USIS, based in Falls Church, Va., said in a statement that it has never been informed that it is under criminal investigation. USIS received a subpoena from the Office of Personnel Management IG in January 2012 for records, the statement said. "USIS complied with that subpoena and has cooperated fully with the government's civil investigative efforts," the company said.

The background check USIS performed on Snowden was done in 2011 and was part of periodic reinvestigations that are required for employees who hold security clearances, according to McFarland and Michelle Schmitz, the assistant inspector general for investigations at OPM.

-- The Associated Press

The GPS location information embedded in a digital photo is an example of so-called metadata, a once-obscure technical term that's become one of Washington's hottest new buzzwords.

The word first sprang from the lips of pundits and politicians earlier this month, after reports disclosed that the government has been secretly accessing the telephone metadata of Verizon customers, as well as online videos, emails, photos and other data collected by nine Internet companies. President Barack Obama hastened to reassure Americans that "nobody is listening to your phone calls," while other government officials likened the collection of metadata to reading information on the outside of an envelope, which doesn't require a warrant.

But privacy experts warn that to those who know how to mine it, metadata discloses much more about us and our daily lives than the content of our communications.

So what is metadata? Simply put, it's data about data. An early example is the Dewey Decimal System card catalogs that libraries use to organize books by title, author, genre and other information. In the digital age, metadata is coded into our electronic transmissions.

"Metadata is information about what communications you send and receive, who you talk to, where you are when you talk to them, the lengths of your conversations, what kind of device you were using and potentially other information, like the subject line of your emails," said Peter Eckersley, the technology projects director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group.

Powerful computer algorithms can analyze the metadata to expose patterns and to profile individuals and their associates, Eckersley said.

"Metadata is the perfect place to start if you want to troll through millions of people's communications to find patterns and to single out smaller groups for closer scrutiny," he said. "It will tell you which groups of people go to political meetings together, which groups of people go to church together, which groups of people go to nightclubs together or sleep with each other."

Metadata records of search terms and Web page visits also can reveal a log of your thoughts by documenting what you've been reading and researching, Eckersley said.

"That's certainly enough to know if you're pregnant or not, what diseases you have, whether you're looking for a new job, whether you're trying to figure out if the NSA is watching you or not," he said, referring to the National Security Agency. Such information provides "a deeply intimate window into a person's psyche," he added.

The more Americans rely on their smartphones and the Internet, the more metadata is generated.

Metadata with GPS locations, for example, can trace a teenage girl to an abortion clinic or a patient to a psychiatrist's office, said Karen Reilly, the development director for The Tor Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit that produces technology to provide online anonymity and circumvent censorship.

Metadata can even identify a likely gun owner, she said.

"Never mind background checks -- if you bring your cellphone to the gun range you probably have a gun," Reilly said.

"People don't realize all the information that they're giving out," she said. "You can try to secure it -- you can use some tech tools, you can try to be a black hole online -- but if you try to live your life the way people are expecting it, it's really difficult to control the amount of data that you're leaking all over the place."

(Continued on page 2)

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