• Using Metadata to Catch a Whistleblower

    March 26, 2014

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    With Obama set to announce on Friday his plans to amend the electronic surveillance program at the National Security Agency, it is a good time to look more closely at what the NSA has been doing with some of the data it has been collecting on Americans for the last decade or so. But first some background.

    As the very first info Edward Snowden’s information about the NSA began to emerge in June 2013, Obama made the following statement:

    Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.

    (Obama also said in that same remark “Now, with respect to the Internet and emails — this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States,” a statement which we now know, from Snowden’s revelations, was a complete lie. But that’s another column.)

    Dianne Feinstein backed up the president that same day, telling nervous Americans “This is just metadata. There is no content involved.”

    (Feinstein also had the gall to say in June 2013, “To my knowledge, we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information.” But that’s another column.)

    What is Metadata?

    Metadata in 2013 was not a term widely-known to the general public. A quick definition might be that metadata is information about data– when and where the data was created, perhaps who created it, how long it took to create, that sort of thing. The metadata for this article might be something like “Created in New York City at 11:33 on April 2 by user Peter Van Buren.” Using this, while a snoop would not with the metadata alone know what I wrote, s/he could indeed place me at a specific location engaged in a specific task at a specific time with a specific computer. Potentially valuable information, especially in the aggregate.

    If the metadata was for an interactive thing, like a phone call, then the snoop would also know to whom I was talking. Metadata can serve as a giant index to allow the snoop to know which “content” is worth looking at in detail. Matching a phone number to a business or person is painless within the U.S. and many other countries. It can done by most people over the internet (reverse directories) and has long been available using more sophisticated systems by law enforcement.

    But let’s focus on the metadata alone, as did the Stanford University Security Lab. Scientists there asked subjects to voluntarily collect and share the same metadata about their cell calls as the NSA collects from them involuntarily. The scientists did this via an app one could download, a kind of willful piece of malware like the NSA could install on phones where it does not already have access to the full network (as it does in the U.S. and most allied nations.)

    To Catch a Whistleblower

    So what did Stanford find among all that metadata? They began with some simple, common-sense assumptions, primarily that the more calls you made to a specific place (i.e., a political group or a friend) and the longer in duration those calls were, the more significant the connection. If that same source called you back, frequently or for long durations, the connection was more or less confirmed. Mistakes could be made, but there is always some collateral damage in these things.

    Let’s play along. Jennifer holds regular conference calls during business hours with the same set of people at numbers that resolve to an office in the Pentagon. She makes a significant set of short calls to an Anti-War organization during after-work hours, followed by another set of very long calls to a law office known to represent whistleblowers. She occasionally calls a journalist whose number resolves to New York City, often only speaking for a few seconds. Is Jennifer planning to blow the whistle on something and is setting up meets with a NY journalist? Let’s kick down her door tonight at 2 am and find out.

    Looking to gather data that might be used to identify vulnerabilities, blackmail or character-assassinate someone? The Stanford people wrote “The degree of sensitivity among contacts took us aback. Participants had calls with Alcoholics Anonymous, gun stores, NARAL Pro-Choice, labor unions, divorce lawyers, sexually transmitted disease clinics, a Canadian import pharmacy, strip clubs, and much more.”

    Knowing Everything

    Let’s go deeper. Stanford found:

    Participant A communicated with multiple local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service, and a hotline for a pharmaceutical used solely to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis.

    Participant B spoke at length with cardiologists at a major medical center, talked briefly with a medical laboratory, received calls from a pharmacy, and placed short calls to a home reporting hotline for a medical device used to monitor cardiac arrhythmia.

    Participant C made a number of calls to a firearm store that specializes in the AR semiautomatic rifle platform. They also spoke at length with customer service for a firearm manufacturer that produces an AR line.

    In a span of three weeks, Participant D contacted a home improvement store, locksmiths, a hydroponics dealer, and a head shop.

    Participant E had a long, early morning call with her sister. Two days later, she placed a series of calls to the local Planned Parenthood location. She placed brief additional calls two weeks later, and made a final call a month after.

    What Do They Know?

    What could someone do with that kind of information about you? What if that someone also had, as we know the NSA does, access to your social media, email, snail mail, credit card data, travel information, air reservations, and bank records? Orwell was an amateur. Metadata is the key to stripping away the haystack so that the needle is just sitting there.

    The Stanford metadata research program appears to still be up and running; volunteer to help by downloading their app. The NSA program is most certainly robustly ongoing.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Given the level of incompetence in the CIA, NSA and State as you, Snowden and other whistleblowers have documented, they’ll fuck up metadata searches of “insider threats” too. Just don’t let them interview you in your apartment.

      03/26/14 1:54 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      As the Dumbest Country on the Planet hurls itself down the surveillance abyss at free fall speed, Obama spreads the salve of lies to grease the sides of the chasm. Meanwhile, the DCOTP(tm)settles back for pizza, beer and Kardashian’s ass, without a clue to their future..or their kids, nor their grandkids, nor the rest of human kind for eternity.
      Privacy will cease to be a word. In fact, it will become a crime to speak it.

      The sub-human scumbags in Congress who have allowed these perverse sociopaths in the “Intelligence community” to engineer the end of the world as we knew it, will themselves come to learn the true meaning of Orwell. I hope it haunts their brain till their death. Although I’m laughing my ass off at Feinstein. She’s outraged that the very entity she was responsible for overseeing turned on her like a rabid pit-bull. And now..she can’t stop it. Too bad she never read the Central Intelligence Act of 1949. She might of got a clue to what she was really dealing with. So much for oversight. Unfortunately, money always comes first.

      03/26/14 1:54 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      That said, I’ve had some good times awaiting the revolution with pizza, beer and views of a Kardashian’s ass.

      03/26/14 2:16 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Speaking of “pizza”, little does the DCOTP understand their calls to their local pizza place could link them to the “terrahists”…


      In fact, I guarantee it..therefore..pizza lovers are the enemy now. After all…

      “…they’ll fuck up metadata searches of “insider threats” too.”

      “Just don’t let them interview you in your apartment.”

      Indeed. The FBI doesn’t even bother with an excuse to murder you anymore. Who needs the Mafia.

      03/26/14 2:06 PM | Comment Link

    • Using Metadata to Catch a Whistleblower | Beat the rich said...


      […] Let’s play along. Jennifer holds regular conference calls during business hours with the same set of people at numbers that resolve …read more […]

      03/26/14 2:37 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      “That said, I’ve had some good times awaiting the revolution with pizza, beer and views of a Kardashian’s ass.”

      Enjoy it while you can, cause LEO’s can now decide you are a “mental defective” for espousing belief in the 2nd Amendment and enter your home with NO WARRANT whatsoever and confiscate your weapons.


      It doesn’t take an Einstein to see where this is going. Metadata to catch a 2nd Amendment believer. Civil war is coming. Period.

      03/26/14 7:41 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      ps. If THAT event isn’t EXACTLY what the Framers wrote the 2nd Amendment for..nothing is. The line in the sand has just been breached. Lord help us all.

      03/26/14 7:43 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Are whistleblower NGOs being monitored then?

      In connection with Peter’s article, the UK Guardian had this related article on metadata concerns:


      03/27/14 1:34 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      At least the US Secret Service makes the rest of the federal agents look competent.

      03/27/14 7:15 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      “At least the US Secret Service makes the rest of the federal agents look competent.”

      Rich, with all due respect I submit, we only see the tips of the iceberg of ANY alphabet agency’s malfeasance. However, I want to tell you something.

      Thanks to Peter, from what I’ve learned from him and this blog is, when it comes to malfeasance, the Department of State could make the Secret Service look like a teenager getting drunk at his first party.

      03/27/14 11:14 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      Now, let’s get down to business.

      I’d like to know how our government initiated the agreements between the 5 Eyes. Any takers?

      03/27/14 11:21 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      And then they are surprised when whistleblowers don’t come forward to get caught in the maelstrom:

      A text of the naive resignation letter the nukelhead Col. Robert Stanley, sent to his command, titled “A Lesson To Remember”:

      Wing One Colleagues,

      Over the past few months, we have been forced to navigate through some of the roughest waters most of us have ever experienced professionally. We’ve seen the reputation of our beloved wing and America’s ICBM mission tarnished because of the extraordinarily selfish actions of officers entrusted with the most powerful weapon system ever devised by man. As you are now learning, the ramifications are dire. Many lives will be permanently changed as a result.

      But this costly lesson must not be in vain.

      The lesson? Had just one solitary airman spoken up for integrity, our leadership team would have been able to take action immediately.

      Tragically, peer pressure and the fear of being an outcast prevailed. As a result, the misconduct had to be inadvertently discovered by OSI agents.

      Think of how different the narrative would be had the silent Airman just come forward. That airman would now be lionized as a hero for casting aside his or her own fear of being made an outcast by a few inadequate peers.

      That airman would have single-handedly preserved the honor and dignity of Malmstrom and all the wonderful people who make up this incredible wing.

      But it didn’t happen. Wrong won out over right … the voice of integrity was silenced … and the good guy lost at the end of the movie.

      This is a wake-up call for everyone who has lost their sense of right and wrong, for those who have become cynical and for those indoctrinated by modern society to acquiesce when faced with bad behavior.

      “All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.” I highlighted this old axiom as the main point of my change of command speech a little over a year ago. I implored our formations of airmen that it never be said of Malmstrom that “we did nothing” in the face of evil. I can’t imagine a more vivid reinforcement of that lesson than what we’re going through now.

      Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/resignation-letter-from-col-robert-stanley-the-senior-officer-at/article_ffacbf45-f998-5b51-82d9-82bf9e35c34d.html#ixzz2xGX1Mav5

      03/28/14 1:00 PM | Comment Link

    • Bakelight said...


      Of all the epic insanity laid bare and highlighted on this blog, the continuing relevance of Diane Feinstein to anything, just might be it. Of course to understand her look no further than her constituents.

      03/30/14 11:12 PM | Comment Link

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