The NSA never metadata it didn't like

MIT's free Immersion tool shows you how much your Gmail account data reveals about who you are and who you know. It's an eye opener.

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Ever since Ed Snowden went on a spontaneous hejira to Hong Kong from which he may never return, the world has been talking about metadata. (At least, they’ve been talking about it more than they had in the past, which was not at all.)

In this context, metadata refers to calling records that have been handed to the NSA by all of the major US telecoms for the last seven years. That includes every phone number for every American, and a list of whom they called, when they did it, how long they talked, and where they were when they did it.

The result: A lot of discussion about how metadata can be used to learn more about you – totally legally, without requiring probable cause or a warrant.

On one hand you’ve got nontechnical people like David Simon, creator of The Wire, who are adamant that collecting metadata is not an invasion of privacy, because no one listened in on those conversations. (Well, at least, they didn’t listen to the vast majority of the conversations – we think.)

On the other side: Geeks and scholars who understand exactly how complex metadata is and what can be done with it. One of my favorites is this tongue-in-cheek academic paper by Kieran Healy, professor of sociology at Duke University. Written from the perspective of a British spy circa 1772, it shows how metadata – in this case, membership in certain radical groups – could be used to reveal the identity of a single terrorist named Paul Revere.

Still, there’s a lot of high-level math in that essay that frankly makes my head spin. A better option: A tool called Immersion, created by the folks at MIT Media Lab, that lets anyone with a Gmail account visualize their metadata in an extremely simple way. You can log in and try it out here.

This is what my network of Gmail “collaborators” looks like. Immersion is merely taking the email addresses of everyone I’ve corresponded with, as well as the cc’s and the number of messages, and converting it to visual form. The more frequently I emailed someone (or vice versa), the larger the bubble. People who are associated in the same group – by, say, sharing an email domain, like coworkers – are represented by the same color.

The big blue circle in the middle that looks like the planet Neptune is my lovely and talented wife Christina; the smaller green bubble that appears to be orbiting her like a moon is also Christina (one of her many alternate email addresses). The kite-shaped constellation in red to the right of her is the gang at ITworld; the orange group on the bottom are editors at InfoWorld.

There’s even a small purple cluster up and to the right that consists of my sisters, none of whom share a common email domain, but all of whom are routinely cc’d on family gossip. Immersion is smart enough to figure out that they must be connected as well.

What’s interesting to me is how accurate this depiction is. If the spooks wanted to map my life, they could do a lot worse than merely look at my Gmail – not the messages themselves, but simply whom I corresponded with and how often. That’s the power of metadata. And that’s why we should all be concerned about who has our metadata and what they plan to do with it.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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