The NSA collects information regarding people’s calling and texting history but claims that this is not a violation of their privacy and security. In contradiction, new research suggests that NSA phone metadata can violate privacy by having the potential to reveal a lot of superficial and deeply personal details about an individual.


Both the government and its citizens agree that privacy and security are two of the most fundamental and sought after human rights. However, recent findings reveal a threat that may potentially compromise the establishment of these two liberties. In 2013, the world all over learned that the United States National Security Agency (NSA) had been collecting information regarding American citizen’s calling and texting history. The NSA claims that this information, referred to as metadata, does not reveal much about an individual and is therefore insufficient to violate the privacy and security of its citizens. As a White House spokesperson stated, the metadata “does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephones calls,” in a bid for assurance that the fundamental rights of Americans are safe.

Three scientists from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California – Jonathan Mayer, Patrick Mutchler, and John Mitchell – set out to determine whether the privacy and security of citizens is truly safe from collection of phone metadata. The team harvested phone metadata from more than 800 consenting individuals using an app called MetaPhone. Information included the calling and texting history, and the phone numbers of the individuals on the other end of the line. This amounted to a total of 1.2 million text messages and 250,000 calls. The research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that metadata collected from MetaPhone revealed a lot about the individual. In fact, these findings plainly contradict the governments’ claims. Location, identity, chronic health problems, religious affiliations, and drug use were all uncovered by linking individuals to clinics, stores and organizations. In defence, the NSA has stated that they are using a “two-hop” rule to limit the scope of their surveillance. Here, for any given person of interest, information can only be collected from someone whom this person calls, or anyone who calls this person. However, the researchers argue that despite this two-hop limitation, the NSA analysts can “hop” to multitudes of additional people from the main person of interest. Thus, a network of people can be monitored to gain a more detailed picture of the primary individual.

Arvind Narayanan, a computer scientist and data privacy expert at Princeton University, states that the study has significant implications on surveillance laws and policy. Thus far, the NSA has downplayed the amount of information they can attain from phone metadata and claims no violation of privacy and personal security. However, the Stanford University research team demonstrated that both superficial and deeply personal details are within reach of the NSA. Narayanan further notes that the NSA has better technology and more manpower than most academics, permitting a detailed look into American citizen’s personal lives – an obvious breach of privacy and a threat to personal security.




Written By: Haisam Shah

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