One of the favored defenses, among those Democrats who choose to justify, rather than criticize, Barack Obama’s decision to keep George W. Bush’s program for electronic surveillance against the American people in place, has been that the system only collects metadata. It’s only metadata, they say, as if that makes it all right.
It’s a canard.
First of all, we do not know that the National Security Agency – a part of the military – has only been collecting metadata. After all, the government once refused to acknowledge that it was collecting metadata from the Americans’ private communications, so why should we believe the Obama Administration now that it says that its secret spy network is only examining metadata? Obama has lied to us repeatedly about these surveillance programs. There’s no reason for us to trust him now.
Also, even if the government is only collecting metadata, that’s bad enough in itself. Consider that the program that seizes metadata on billions of phone calls from tens of millions of American Verizon customers per day is only one part of only one of many electronic spy programs run by the NSA. So, it’s not just collecting metadata on telephone calls made by Verizon customers. It’s collecting similar metadata from other telephone companies, and from online communication companies, as well.
Then, these points of metadata are joined together in a huge database, where they can be combined.
It’s like a huge pointillist painting… of Americans’ private lives. Collect just one dot, information that one person called another person at a certain time and date, and it doesn’t look like much. Combine that, however, with months upon months of that person’s calls, and details about that person’s life begin to emerge. Add in Facebook posts and private chats – even those that have been cut off from general public view. Add in purchases made online. A recognizable portrait of a person’s private life emerges. Now add in Google metadata – we now see what this person, identified from their unique IP address, searches for, who they are emailing, the titles of their emails and attachments, the items they have placed their daily calendar, and the documents that they have placed in their Google Drives.
Keep in mind that metadata also shows us what web sites people go to, as they are tracked by GoogleAdwords and Facebook cookies. So, we can see, just from metadata, what people are reading, and which online networks they are involved with.
Let’s not forget Google Maps, and “checking in” on Facebook. Metadata shows where we go, as long as we’re carrying a wireless device – and sometimes even when we aren’t.
The pointillist image of a person’s life is, at this point, exposed in fine resolution.
To justify government electronic surveillance by asserting that the spy networks only collect metadata is to miss the point that metadata allows for a remarkable examination of our private lives.
Metadata can tell the government who has attended political meetings. Metadata can provide government agents with material for blackmail. Metadata can easily expose secrets, whether those secrets are personal or commercial.
What’s more, that metadata can be used to provide grounds for further searches and seizures of personal information that goes far beyond the level of metadata.
Anyone who uses the phrase “only metadata” doesn’t understand just how pervasive electronic metadata has become.