Stanford researchers have launched a crowdsourced study relying on volunteers to hand over their data in an effort to find out how much the National Security Agency (NSA) can learn about their targets just through harvesting metadata.
The NSA has collected metadata on millions of Americans and others around the world. Documents revealed in June of this year that Verizon was ordered to hand over all records for U.S. customers to the NSA. Since then, reports of the NSA’s ability to create complex “pattern of life” profiles for millions of people have also emerged, among many other related reports.
In order to show just how revealing the metadata can be, researchers Jonathan Mayer and Patrick Mutchler created the Android app “MetaPhone.”
Mayer points out that some say the NSA program has little impact on privacy and is not really surveillance since it just collects metadata.
“Like many computer scientists, we strongly disagree,” Mayer wrote. “Phone metadata is inherently revealing. We want to rigorously prove it—for the public, for Congress, and for the courts.”
The researchers will gather data from participants’ phones through the app, which will then be analyzed at Stanford University.
“Device data will include records about your recent calls and text messages,” the researchers said, according to WorldNetDaily. “Social network data will include your profile, connections and recent activity. The data will be stored and analyzed at Stanford, then deleted at the end of the study. Research staff will take reasonable precautions to secure the data in transit, storage, analysis, and destruction.”
After just two weeks of conducting the study, the researchers have already shown that they can automatically predict a participant’s relationship status using metadata.
Even though only one in four subjects had their Facebook account configured to display relationship status to a stranger, the researchers still found out about their targets’ relationships.
Their current system, however, has a bit of a tradeoff. If they want to get relatively few singles wrong, they can correctly guess around 60 percent of individuals with significant others. If they accept getting 33 percent of singles wrong, they can get over 80 percent of individuals with significant others right.
“These are, to emphasize, preliminary results. We will have more, better, and higher confidence findings as additional users (like you!) participate,” the researchers wrote, noting that it is just a first step towards confirming just how important metadata is.
Mayer told MIT Technology Review that they believe metadata can reveal a great deal of private information about a person’s personal life.
“Our hypothesis is that phone metadata is packed with meaning,” he said.
MIT Technology Review notes that this research could make waves outside of just debates around policy and legal concerns about domestic surveillance.
They point out that private industry has joined the datamining frenzy, with some telecommunications companies monetizing their own customers’ metadata.
Just how much personal information can be obtained through this type of metadata analysis remains to be seen and the researchers have not revealed how long they will be collecting data.
Yet if what was accomplished after just two weeks is any indicator, they might be able to find out quite a bit indeed.
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