Anyone following the ongoing Edward Snowden saga about National Security Agency/GCHQ surveillance of us all will surely have come across the term ‘metadata’. But how many of us really know how it works and why the American and British spy agencies collect it?
Metadata is simply a record of behaviour. Who you phone or email and when and where you shop and what you buy are recorded and the results analysed by computers for interesting patterns.
Those of us used to traditional surveillance methods, especially those who lived through the Troubles in Ireland, wonder why the spies prefer this sort of data rather than recording and listening to our phone calls or reading our emails. That’s how we lived through the years of violence in Belfast, careful about what we said on the phone but less so about who we phoned.
Well the answer simply is that the spooks haven’t stopped doing that, they’ve just become more clever and discerning about whose calls or emails to intercept and they use metadata to help them.
Say for instance GCHQ is monitoring Gerry Adams’ phone in 1986, which they almost certainly did as a matter of routine. He starts to get phone calls from Fr Alec Reid who in turn is phoning the Cardinal in Armagh, Charles Haughey’s office in Dublin, a Northern Ireland Office official in London and an ecumenical Protestant cleric in south Belfast. The Cardinal phones Rome to speak to a special papal advisor who in turn phones Charles Haughey’s office which in turn phones Fr Reid, John Hume, the Church of Ireland primate and the ecumenical cleric and they all in turn phone each other. All the time Reid is phoning Adams who calls him and inbetween is putting in lengthy calls to Ted Howell, his close friend and advisor, who these days masquerades as a teddy bear on Twitter. Howell in turn phones Niall O’Dowd, Bill Flynn and Pat Doherty at their offices in New York and they in turn phone Adams, the US State Department and the White House.
You don’t have to be tapping each of these phones to know that something is going on, although the British probably were anyway and if they weren’t the Americans were. What was happening here was how the prelude to the real start of the peace process might have looked like and the British, thanks to GCHQ’s surveillance, would know that if they hadn’t already, they better put taps on all these lines and monitor the email accounts and traveling habits of all those involved. That’s the value of metadata.
Below, courtesy of consortiumnews.com, a great investigative site, is a YouTube video presented by a couple of bright and articulate young MIT graduate students, which explains the full potential of metadata collection in a way that I could not even attempt. It is well worth watching.
I also recommend that you study your own email metadata, which you can via this link the two researchers have provided. Here it is, although I warn you it can be disconcerting: immersion.media.mit.edu.