This is an edited version of an article by Kurt Opsahl that was originally published on EFF’s Deeplinks blog on 7th June 2013. It has been modified for an Australian audience. See the original article.
In response to the recent news reports about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, US President Barack Obama said today, “When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” Instead, the government was just “sifting through this so-called metadata.” The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made a similar comment last night: “The program does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone’s phone calls. The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber.”
Australia’s former Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, made similar claims last year in relation to the proposal, currently being considered by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, for mandatory data retention in Australia.
What they are trying to say is that disclosure of metadata—the details about phone calls, without the actual voice—isn’t a big deal, not something for Australians to get upset about if the government knows. Let’s take a closer look at what they are saying:
- They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
- They know you called Lifeline from The Gap in Sydney (a site of regular suicide attempts). But the topic of the call remains a secret.
- They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.
- They know you received a call from the Shooter’s Party while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your local MP immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
- They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called a clinic that offers abortions later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.
Sorry, your phone records—oops, “so-called metadata”—can reveal a lot more about the content of your calls than the government is implying. Metadata provides enough context to know some of the most intimate details of your lives. And the government has given no assurances that this data will never be correlated with other easily obtained data. They may start out with just a phone number, but matching that to a person is not difficult. The government also wants access to records of your location throughout the day, information which is generated from your mobile phone, even if it’s not a smartphone, or is a smartphone with the GPS functionality disabled.
Metadata is far from ‘harmless technical information’ about your communications. The proposal [PDF: 688KB] from the Australian Attorney-General’s Department for mandatory retention of metadata includes retention of phone-related metadata, but also metadata about email communications, web browsing and other online activities. If implemented, this would represent an unprecedented intrusion into the private lives of all Australian residents.