In response to the recent news reports about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, President Barack Obama said today, “When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” Instead, the government was just “sifting through this so-called metadata.” The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made a similar comment last night: “The program does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone’s phone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber.”
What they are trying to say is that disclosure of metadata—the details about phone calls, without the actual voice—isn’t a big deal, not something for Americans to get upset about if the government knows. Let’s take a closer look at what they are saying:
- They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
- They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
- They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.
- They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
- They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood’s number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.
Sorry, your phone records—oops, “so-called metadata”—can reveal a lot more about the content of your calls than the government is implying. Metadata provides enough context to know some of the most intimate details of your lives. And the government has given no assurances that this data will never be correlated with other easily obtained data. They may start out with just a phone number, but a reverse telephone directory is not hard to find. Given the public positions the government has taken on location information, it would be no surprise if they include location information demands in Section 215 orders for metadata.
If the President really welcomes a robust debate on the government’s surveillance power, it needs to start being honest about the invasiveness of collecting your metadata.