Stanford University researchers have confirmed what civil liberties advocates have warned since the NSA scandal broke: metadata surveillance is a window to highly sensitive personal information, including medical issues, financial history, and even marijuana cultivation.
Two Stanford graduate students proved this by doing the snooping themselves. Since November, they have surveyed the phone records of 546 volunteers and consulted Yelp and Google Places directories to determine how much sensitive personal information metadata can reveal. Participants installed a “MetaPhone” app on their Android phones to enable the surveillance.
"The degree of sensitivity among contacts took us aback," wrote researchers Jonathan Mayer and Patrick Mutchler in an announcement of their findings published Wednesday. "We found that phone metadata is unambiguously sensitive, even in a small population and over a short time window."
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Using phone metadata, the researchers inferred sensitive information about people's lives, including: neurological and heart conditions, gun ownership, marijuana cultivation, abortion, and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. While participants consented to having their identities revealed, the researchers opted to keep them anonymous due to the sensitive nature of their findings.
As the researchers point out, this study directly contradicts the repeated assurance by President Obama that the NSA "is not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content."
They warn that the metadata they had access to is dwarfed by what the amount the NSA has access to. "The dataset that we analyzed in this report spanned hundreds of users over several months. Phone records held by the NSA and telecoms span millions of Americans over multiple years."