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Do you understand the real implication of the monitored phone traffic scandal?

This is actually a Heathen writer I follow, but he also happens to work in data analysis, so he went a little off-topic on his blog this week to explain EXACTLY what can be done with all the bits and snips of data that were captured in the analysis of cellular and internet use. Before I read it, I never really stopped to think that for people who don't work in the field, they don't have a context to explain exactly what it was they were monitoring. For those who've been mostly not caring, does this better explain why you should be concerned?

The posting is a lot longer, whole thing is here, but I've pulled out the explanatory part.

So, what is this metadata we're not supposed to worry about? You may have heard some television talking head saying it is, in this case, phone numbers (who called whom), cell towers (where they were when they talked), when they called, and call duration. That's all. Yup, that's all.

I am a software engineer by trade. I had some experience with telephone metadata not very many years ago. I was working for a company that helped 411 information providers give their customers, which is to say you, better service. Our CTO had a hypothesis: that people lived their lives according to what he called "little stories," which were common and predictable. If we could discover what they were, we could arrange it so that, when you made a 411 call asking about X, we could tell you about Y and Z also, because we would know you would want to know about those other things next.

It was my job to discover the "little stories" by analyzing a mountain of metadata. One of the other guys in the company did the database extraction. He gave me a file with about 800,000 unsorted 411 call records. No, not recordings, just the metadata: the number of the caller, when they called, and the name and number of the business they wanted to know about. When the other guy did the extraction, he arranged to replace the caller's phone number with an opaque handle, which is a fancy way of saying an otherwise meaningless number. If the same person made more than one 411 call, I would know it was the same caller, but I would have no way of tracking that back to an actual person. We did this two-step process deliberately, to be sure no one on our staff could easily abuse this information we had been given to work with.

So I sorted and resorted and regrouped and then eyeballed all 800,000 of those call records. That took a while, but I learned several things very quickly.

The first thing I learned is that there are lawyers in this world who are apparently too important to dial phone numbers themselves. They call 411 instead, a lot, and then probably bill their clients for the 411 fee, which is not usually very cheap these days. Not all lawyers are like this, but this was, as I said, the first thing I learned from this analysis.

Then I asked myself, "But how did I know these people are lawyers?" All I can tell you is that it was obvious. In fact, it was pretty obvious what most people did for a living, even if they only made a few 411 calls. Another thing that was usually obvious was the sex of the caller. The most egregious 411-abusing lawyer appeared to be a woman who was fond of shoes. There were building contractors, soccer moms, bakery shop owners, et cetera at great length, and even, I am pretty sure, a couple of probably-very-discreet prostitutes.

The database, by the way, came from a British 411 service, with most calls in and around London.

The only "little story" I managed to observe involved a guy who made lots of calls over a period of weeks to strip clubs and escort services (they call them "modeling agencies" over there). Then he made a call for the number of the "National Health Service, Department of Sexual Health." This was followed a few minutes later by a call for the number of a particular hospital. Then, over the next few days, there were several calls for the number of a particular doctor. Like the lawyers, this guy couldn't be bothered to write a number down, or put it in his phone's directory.

If I didn't manage to find lots of little stories, keep in mind that all I was looking at were 411 calls. If someone has all of your call metadata to sort through and examine at their leisure, there are all kinds of little stories they will be able to tell about you, accurately, even if they have never heard the content of your calls. And if we divided up the work so it would be hard to abuse the data in our possession, that doesn't mean it was impossible for any of us. Far from it.

The government's apologists will make the predictable statement here: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." All free men and women who understand what free means need to stand up right now and say very loudly in response "We are not your subjects!" and then make it clear that the discussion is over. No law trumps a plain reading of the Bill of Rights. Not even if they are repealed. One might as well try to repeal the laws of physics. There is that much truth in them.


By capturing that data, little snips and bits, they have enough basic information to extrapolate your entire life - what you do, where you go, who you know, who THEY know, and so on.  You have "nothing to hide" under today's laws, but what about tomorrows?

Answer Question

Asked by NotPanicking at 10:41 AM on Jun. 21, 2013 in Politics & Current Events

Level 51 (421,174 Credits)
Answers (20)
  • Golly my life is so boring in comparison. Shoot if someone were to extrapolate my calls they'll see I don't call many people and when I do it's mostly my husband who travels for work.

    Answer by KristiS11384 at 10:52 AM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • I understand and I think it's way worse than this, and has been for a long time. My mom is a writer and belongs to a few trade associations. She knows other authors that have had their computers confiscated and their homes searched, and interrogated about things they were researching for their books. This happened under Bush, so it isn't new, but I think because the scope and amount of information government has granted itself access to means that we are going to be a micromanaged society. All under the guise of 'if it saves just one life', when in reality safety is just an illusion. I fear that the only possible way to change some of these things back are to elect a third party, and unfortunately the electorate is happy to proclaim a side and set the rest on ignore.

    I hope that made sense.


    Answer by QuinnMae at 10:57 AM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • But Kristie it is not just your phone calls, it is your texting and your internet, including places like CM, where we blow off steam.
    It is a total invasion of privacy.

    Answer by Dardenella at 11:10 AM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • I don't text and my internet consists of HULU, Netflix, Amazon, Cafemom and games on Facebook. Really what you see here is what it is in real life. I'm BORING. I mean the worst thing on my browser history is probably Asses in kilts.

    I mean if you think about it really, the same can be said on gathering info on cafemom. Anyone with the basic knowledge of how browsing works can bypass the privacy features on profiles, etc and find out what groups you frequent, who is on your friends list, etc. Going further back this sort of thing happened with landlines all the time too. In fact I dare say since the invention of the telephone switchboard calls have been monitored in terms of who calls who and how frequently etc. Nothing is really "private" nothing ever really has been unless it happens in your own head and you don't tell another soul about it or write it down etc.

    Answer by KristiS11384 at 11:53 AM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • Maybe I just don't see what the panic is about. But unless they suddenly start putting cameras in lightbulbs you install in the bedroom I'm just not going to panic on what a bunch of nosy busy bodies think they know. It depends more on how they use it. Look at the group Anonymous which has literally used their "abilities" to solve cases and send that info on to the local authorities handling them. (Granted they are now in all sorts of trouble for it too for "invasion of privacy" because they did not have the "authority" to obtain the information.)
    In short. Since the technology has been invented it has been monitored.

    Answer by KristiS11384 at 12:00 PM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • I mean the worst thing on my browser history is probably Asses in kilts.
    Answer by KristiS11384 22 minutes ago

    ^^^^LOL! Better be careful about those- they could twist it around to something like a porn search or wanting to live in another country or something! :p

    Answer by mrsmom110 at 12:18 PM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • It depends more on how they use it.

    That is where the real issue lies. Start small - things like congressional redistricting based on your consumer info indicating your leanings. Go bigger - slowly chipping away at the programming viewed by people who aren't "politically right", setting up road work schedules to make it harder to get to businesses frequented by people who vote the way they don't like so they're more inclined to leave.

    Simple simple stuff that already happens now - city council clique has an issue with local business owner, they pretend it's an accident to tear up his sewer and shut him down during the month most crucial to his business. Party wants more seats in congress, they scoot a district line over to cut the other parties most heavy voting area in half.

    Comment by NotPanicking (original poster) at 12:19 PM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • But unless they suddenly start putting cameras in lightbulbs you install in the bedroom
    Answer by KristiS11384 18 minutes ago

    ^^^Great! One more thing to worry about! Thanks a lot! lol :p

    Answer by mrsmom110 at 12:19 PM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • OK- on a serious note, I think this whole thing is just the tip of the iceberg & there's probably stuff we don't know. (as far as how much is used & what for) I think it's ridiculous to have our own Govt. spying on its private citizens. Even if we live ordinary, dull lives, I'm sure if they wanted to, they could find a way to twist something around & bury us in mounds of legalities & red tape or even worse. Having that kind of power is scary.


    Answer by mrsmom110 at 12:23 PM on Jun. 21, 2013

  • That is where the real issue lies.

    That is what the issue has always been. And both sides of the political spectrum have been guilty of the same underhanded manipulation of information for their own benefit.

    Answer by KristiS11384 at 12:24 PM on Jun. 21, 2013

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