Graphs by MIT Students Show the Enormously Intrusive Nature of Metadata

You've probably heard politicians or pundits say that “metadata doesn't matter.” They argue that police and intelligence agencies shouldn't need probable cause warrants to collect information about our communications. Metadata isn’t all that revealing, they say, it’s just numbers.

But the digital metadata trails you leave behind every day say more about you than you can imagine. Now, thanks to two MIT students, you don't have to imagine—at least with respect to your email.

Deepak Jagdish and Daniel Smilkov's Immersion program maps your life, using your email account. After you give the researchers access to your email metadata—not the content, just the time and date stamps, and “To” and “Cc” fields—they’ll return to you a series of maps and graphs that will blow your mind. The program will remind you of former loves, illustrate the changing dynamics of your professional and personal networks over time, mark deaths and transitions in your life, and more. You’ll probably learn something new about yourself, if you study it closely enough. (The students say they delete your data on your command.)

Whether or not you grant the program access to your data, watch the video embedded below to see Jagdish and Smilkov show illustrations from Immersion and talk about what they discerned about themselves from looking at their own metadata maps. While you’re watching, remember that while the NSA and FBI are collecting our phone records in bulk, and using advanced computer algorithms to make meaning from them, state and local government officials can often also get this information without a warrant.

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When President Obama said that the phone surveillance program “isn’t about” “listening to your telephone calls,” he was deflecting attention from the terrifying fact that there’s nothing currently stopping the government from amassing and data-mining every scrap of metadata in the world about us. He made it sound like metadata spying isn't a big deal, when it's pretty much the golden ticket.

Metadata surveillance is extremely powerful, and we are all subject to it, constantly. If you want to see something resembling what the NSA sees when it looks at your data, give Jagdish and Smilkov’s program a try. Then tell the government: get a warrant.

See also this post on Immersion by the ACLU's Matt Harwood.

This is an edited version of a post first published on the ACLU of Massachusetts' Privacy SOS blog.


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why do they need access to your data at all? Why not distribute a simple program? very poor behaviour that smacks of sensationalism considering all they are doing is adding some graphs to metadata.


"very poor behaviour that smacks of sensationalism considering all they are doing is adding some graphs to metadata"

As someone who actually worked on a visual data analysis program not long after 9/11, I can tell you with absolute certainty that what they're doing is mimicking the same methods the TIA - Total Information Awareness - programs were to rely on. Visual data analysis and visual mapping are more cognitively efficient than numerical analysis, once you're talking about the computer -> human step, and putting the data they access in this form reinforces the fact that "just metadata" is a lot more descriptive of the person to whom that data is attached than the national security agencies would like you to believe. Also, if you don't want them to access your data, you have an option - don't *ask* them to. This is an opt-in program where people are voluntarily granting access for the purposes of analysis and study; a stark contrast to the government's "what's 'opting'?" approach.

On a side note, the very idea that metadata isn't descriptive should be scoffed at for the mere fact that the government is collecting it. If it did not have descriptive merit, there would be no purpose in obtaining it!

Vicki B.

What did they have to do those programs AFTER September 11 for when they had information beFORE then and ignored it SIX DAMN TIMES THAT IT WAS PRESENTED TO THEM?

My entire family structure changed the day that happened, and I think they should have done something when they got the second warning if not the first.

All this stuff they're doing now, as if trying to "make up for the mistake" they made the first time isn't helping anything. In fact, I think that not only do I know someone who was taken from us that day but now I feel like I'm being treated like the very 'people' who killed him.


America needs annual certification of all law enforcement personal as they have control over your life and death.

Vicki B.

You just wouldn't believe all the situations I keep hearing of where they don't even NEED a warrant.
I work around police officers all the time, and the stuff they say frankly confuses the hell right out of me.
I suppose that if I didn't ALSO know an attorney I could be LESS confused but, except for in one case (that I think was called Terry v. Ohio) everything I've been hearing is a flat-out lie.
I just hope that it's like most other stories you hear from people you work with or around and that they're telling fish tales, but I have a feeling some of them AREN'T doing that.
I can't tell you for instance how many times they've said they have the right to tell people to stop videotaping or filming them b/c it's "interfering" with their work to DO so.
I also can't count the number of times I've heard them say things like "you're allowed to taser a person for simply refusing to get out of their vehicle."
No other threat being present, just the refusal to listen and they're allowed to do it. Expecting no challenges to their policies to come from ANYwhere.
In fact, one of the officers who said they have the right to tell you to stop taping them and expect you to do it became visibly angry when I told him he can't do it. He hasn't talked to me since I mentioned it, and a large number of other officers refuse to say a word to me since I guess he told them about it.
I didn't expect all that. I just thought they didn't KNOW they weren't allowed to, and I really thought I was helping them learn something that they'd find useful. After all, I don't think their department's dying to have a lawsuit brought against them.
So much for thinking I was helping.

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