News Release

Data Mining of Telecom Metadata is “More Dangerous than Intercepting Conversations”

CHRISTOPHER SIMPSON, simpson at american.edu
Professor of communications at American University in Washington, D.C., Simpson is author of several books, including Blowback, Science of Coercion and National Security Directives of the Reagan and Bush Administrations.

He said today: “The newly public National Security Agency records about PRISM and similar operations demonstrate that metadata about electronic communication is actually more dangerous to democracy than intercepting conversations. That is because the NSA’s analysis of this information is based on mathematical formulas that use guilt by association to construct imaginary networks of people who might, or might not, have some link to political violence, espionage, or to almost any controversy involving international relations.

“Much of what was revealed last week about the National Security Agency has been publicly available for almost a decade, but denied by officials and forgotten or ignored by most big media. The information now on the public record enables any informed person to understand the basics of how these intelligence operations work and why they are dangerous.

“Particularly dangerous are the computer files that often contain misinformation, disinformation, and in some cases deliberate smears that expose millions of innocent people to harm. These files become part of the targeting process used to data mine telecommunication records. At present it is impossible for any individual, organization, or court to review or correct the false information or false assumptions that easily find their way into government records.

“Recent leaks make clear that senior U.S. government officials, including Director of Central Intelligence James Clapper, have dissembled or lied under oath when briefing Congress on these programs.

“Today we know there are several levels and government agencies involved in these operations, but let’s start at the bottom. The NSA systematically sucks up and preserves metadata known as signaling information about substantially every digital transmission that crosses U.S. networks 24/7, 365 day a year. This includes large amounts of domestic communication as well as international data that passes through U.S. computer servers. Signaling info begins with to/from data, time, place, duration, and the digital channel through which the information is passing. The signaling data is connected to packets of other digital information that make up the actual contents of the telephone call, email, or other communication.

“The signaling data is data mined for what NSA analysts believe could be suspicious links among communicators. Suppose person ‘A’ is a suspect for some reason, perhaps based on false information. Person A’s digital connection to all other people or groups are automatically located. Those now become the ‘B’ suspects, so to speak. The B’s data are mined for links to other ‘B’s as well as to ‘C’s, and so on through various degrees of separation. From this, a supposed network is created that flag people’s names and accounts based on who talks to who, the length of the contact, number of contacts, loop-backs within the supposed network, and similar data. Anyone who has played the ‘six degrees of separation’ game is aware of how easily this process can be abused to spur misleading investigation or to create false ‘evidence’ of associations or conspiracies that do not exist.”

See the recent article “What’s the Matter with Metadata?” by Jane Mayer: “Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from liberal Northern California and the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, assured the public earlier today that the government’s secret snooping into the phone records of Americans was perfectly fine, because the information it obtained was only ‘meta,’ meaning it excluded the actual content of the phone conversations, providing merely records, from a Verizon subsidiary, of who called whom when and from where.”

Also, see “Secret Surveillance and the Crisis of Legitimacy” by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.