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Metadata Not Anonymous at All, Stanford Researchers Show

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 8 comments
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If you're not concerned about government surveillance of your phone because the National Security Agency (NSA) only collects metadata, think again. A study from Stanford University shows that connecting "anonymous" metadata to compromising personal information is trivially easy.

Documents leaked in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the organization was collecting metadata about calls placed to and from Verizon telephone lines. Although this revelation was potentially troubling, metadata collection is, in theory, not cause for concern.

The metadata about your phone calls does not reveal your name or identity, or the content of your conversations, but it does track the numbers you call, how long the calls last, and which other companies have your phone number in their directories.

Although the specific documents leaked in June concerned Verizon landlines, the NSA has since admitted that it collects metadata about mobile telephone calls and text messages as well.

MORE: 13 Security and Privacy Tips for the Truly Paranoid

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that collecting metadata is "not surveillance." Because the information, by itself, cannot identify individuals, Feinstein and the NSA hold that it is practically harmless for the government to collect it.

A research team operating out of Stanford University disagrees, and hopes to prove its point with a new Android app called MetaPhone. By accessing your phone number and your Facebook page, this app does what any NSA program could do: It acquires your metadata, then correlates it with your social-media information to see how much it can learn about you.

"Phone metadata is inherently revealing," wrote Jonathan Mayer and Patrick Mutchler, the app's designers, on a Stanford Law School blog. By using MetaPhone, you can submit your information to a Stanford research project so that Mayer and Mutchler can determine how easy it is for organizations to glean personal information from your supposedly non-revealing metadata.

When Tom's Guide tried the app, we found that the results supported Stanford's assertion: Dozens of different organizations had the phone number we tried on file. The NSA — or worse, a cybercriminal — would be able to find our name, our geographic location, our bank, our medical facilities and even our eating habits with just a simple cross-check online.

Whether the NSA is actually cross-referencing individual metadata is another question. The process is simple, but by no means efficient. Uploading and cross-checking data takes time, and to find more complex information, like a home address, would likely take some human oversight.

Like most NSA surveillance programs, you probably have nothing to worry about unless you're conspiring with terrorists or planning some kind of criminal activity. The question of whether the NSA should have access to such revealing data from everyday citizens, though, is a legitimate privacy concern.

Aside from participating in the MetaPhone study, there are a few things the average user can do to protect him or herself. Not listing your phone number on your Facebook or Twitter profile makes you harder to track down.

If you're really paranoid, ditch your smartphone and use a new disposable phone every month. Forget about landlines; they're even easier to track than cellphones.

Follow Marshall Honorof @marshallhonorofand on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Add your comment Display 8 Comments.
  • 3 Hide
    COLGeek , December 26, 2013 2:45 PM
    From a theoretical standpoint, why would any fairly well informed IT pro think this is terribly difficult? Particularly given the computing horsepower cheaply and readily available to churn through the data.
  • 3 Hide
    nlreynolds80 , December 27, 2013 6:41 AM
    "Like most NSA surveillance programs, you probably have nothing to worry about unless you're conspiring with terrorists or planning some kind of criminal activity."

    Sure...until politics gets involved and politcal enemies are relabeled as terrorists. This is one cookie jar politicians won't be able to keep their hands out of.
  • 1 Hide
    nlreynolds80 , December 27, 2013 8:13 AM
    "Like most NSA surveillance programs, you probably have nothing to worry about unless you're conspiring with terrorists or planning some kind of criminal activity."

    Sure...until politics gets involved and politcal enemies are relabeled as terrorists. This is one cookie jar politicians won't be able to keep their hands out of.
  • 3 Hide
    LORD_ORION , December 27, 2013 9:19 AM
    >>Like most NSA surveillance programs, you probably have nothing to worry about

    Yeah right... go read The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. Politics attracts a certain kind of individual. That certain kind of individual surrounds himself with certain kinds of yes men.

    Tyrants rising up and abusing government power is the norm.
  • -1 Hide
    rwinches , December 27, 2013 9:42 AM
    Ok so the NSA doesn't know how to use reverse lookup?

    What if they trace a number you called to another and that to another... and finally to a number of interest. Uh Oh now you are on the list.

  • 0 Hide
    dextermat , December 27, 2013 9:48 AM
    Anybody surprised about that ???
  • 1 Hide
    DREGstudios , December 27, 2013 1:56 PM
    The dystopian fantasies of yesteryear are now a reality. We’ve allowed the coming of an age where the civil liberties our forefathers fought so hard for are being eroded by the day. Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly are mere ghostly images of their original intent. We’ve woken up to an Orwellian Society of Fear where anyone is at the mercy of being labeled a terrorist for standing up for rights we took for granted just over a decade ago. Read about how we’re waging war against ourselves at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten-years.html
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