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The Dangers of Metadata

Opinion | October 20, 2014

An advertisement for a sweatshirt with the slogan, “Just a Philly Girl Living in a Boston World” recently popped up on my Facebook. This was startlingly creepy, largely because I am from Philadelphia and am currently living in the Boston area. This information is readily available on my Facebook account because I voluntarily put it there for my friends to see. But the sweatshirt advertisement reveals that this personal information was sold by Facebook to an outside company. Which is something I, and everyone, agreed to when we clicked “I agree” to the pages of text we didn’t read. This is true of Instagram, Twitter, Gmail, and almost every other free Internet service we use on a daily basis. An unfathomable number of companies have access to our social media information.

As was revealed in the Snowden leaks, the government also has access to all of this personal information. Since 9/11, the National Security Agency (the NSA) has been sending out tens of thousands of from Internet providers and cell phone companies called National Security Letters. These letters do not need court approval and come with a mandatory gag order: the receiver cannot legally share information regarding the letter or even acknowledge its existence. It appears that most of these orders have been complied with. Additionally, the NSA and FBI have been tapping into the servers and communication lines within companies like Google and Facebook, oftentimes without their consent. The government’s collection of information extends to phone metadata and communications as well—to every text message and phone call. Even if your phone is off, it is still transmitting information about your location that the government is collecting. The only way to stop this constant transmission is to literally wrap your phone in tinfoil to block signals. It appears there is very little that the government does not know about our technological interactions.

When I talk about this massive government collection of information, I sound like a conspiracy theorist. Because the facts sounds crazy. The counter-argument is that yes, the government is collecting this information, but it doesn’t mean that the NSA is looking at everyone’s file. Assumedly, the NSA is here to protect the American public—and if you have nothing to hide, then who cares?

Many Americans cite the number of terrorist attacks that have been prevented and lives that have been saved due to surveillance programs like the NSA program. And it is true that every life saved and every violence prevented is valuable. But we cannot allow one right to be violated in favor of protecting another. The American right to privacy is a cornerstone of our law system, stated clearly in the fourth amendment. There have been times in our history when American privacy has been violated with disastrous consequences: during the reign of McCarthyism, searches and seizures during Japanese American interment, and the implementation of COINTELPRO—a counter intelligence program that included surveillance, harassment, and wrongful imprisonment of “subversive” groups such as the NAACP and the Black Panther Party. We cannot know what form our government will take a few years from now, or if we will slip into another period of McCarthyism or something worse. We do not know who will be deemed “subversive” or what parts of ourselves we’ll need to keep hidden in the future.

Without basic privacy of our digital data, we won’t even have the option to hide. Even if I were to delete every social media presence I have, I would still need to use my phone and Google every now and then. Under our current structures, I have lost privacy and control of my data and metadata simply by existing in a digital world.

There have been several rounds of legislation and regulation passed to protect American privacy. But our data is still being collected en masse by both companies and governmental branches. There are now several companies offering data storage and privacy protection, and I can foresee a day where everyone will use these services. The company openPDS is one such company and the co-founder recently spoke to the Observer about the need for his product. OpenPDS is a step in the right direction and hopefully will help increase personal privacy. But shouldn’t our guaranteed rights be protected by more than an app or a commercial service? Shouldn’t our rights instead simply be ensured by our government? As it stands, they are not.