Does your phone metadata betray your personal information?

Heather Parry

By Heather Parry

14 March 2014

A study at Stanford University this week confirmed that phone call “metadata” can give up private details about your life.

During this study, the researchers were able to pinpoint the lifestyles of certain people just from their phone metadata. Their activities; one was a cannabis cultivator, one a woman visiting an abortion clinic, and another suffered from multiple sclerosis. Interestingly, the researchers gleaned this personal information using only the location and timing of the person’s phone calls, combined with public information available on their Facebook profiles.

This research was instigated following the claim that the NSA’s phonetapping only extended to collecting the metadata of millions of phone calls, but not the content of those phone calls. The research, then, was aimed at confirming what personal information could be betrayed only using the metadata of such calls.

The research, however, asks deeper questions about the safety of our identities in a modern setting. While it may be true that one type of surveillance is fairly innocuous, to answer the security question with this claim is disingenuous. Any concept of personal security should, these days, be answered in terms of the entire sum of our available information. As the Stanford research has shown, logging phone calls may be relatively inoffensive, but when that information is combined with public information revealed throughout the internet, it can become a lot more dangerous.

Longer-term surveillance can also change a “harmless” act into a malign one; for instance, the Stanford researchers encountered patterns of movement and behavior that gave up huge amounts of information about their participants. For instance, one participant engaged in a long phone call with a relative before calling the local Planned Parenthood, a call that was repeated several times over a period of a month. The cannabis cultivator also visited a hydroponics store, a head shop and a locksmith over a period of three weeks.

The researchers were also keen to stress that a single phonecall could also betray sensitive information about participants. Some users called support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, while others called divorce lawyers, strip clubs, labor unions and clinics specializing in STDs. Such calls, even assessed on their own, imply very particular facts about the phone user, and whether these implications are correct or not, they can be used to profile you.

It seems that governments all over the world as abandoning the old “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be afraid” refrain to explain their constant surveillance and are instead adopting an outright lie; that they only collect data that cannot be used to infer anything about you. 

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