Mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau explains to Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman how metadata can give you so much useful information that listening in to the conversation may not be necessary.
That’s because a phone call—the metadata of a phone call tells what you do as opposed to what you say. So, for example, if you call from the hospital when you’re getting a mammogram, and then later in the day your doctor calls you, and then you call the surgeon, and then when you’re at the surgeon’s office you call your family, it’s pretty clear, just looking at that pattern of calls, that there’s been some bad news. If there’s a tight vote in Congress, and somebody who’s wavering on the edge, you discover that they’re talking to the opposition, you know which way they’re vote is going.
One of my favorite examples is, when Sun Microsystems was bought by Oracle, there were a number of calls that weekend before. One can imagine just the trail of calls. First the CEO of Sun and the CEO of Oracle talk to each other. Then probably they both talk to their chief counsels. Then maybe they talk to each other again, then to other people in charge. And the calls go back and forth very quickly, very tightly. You know what’s going to happen. You know what the announcement is going to be on Monday morning, even though you haven’t heard the content of the calls. So that metadata is remarkably revealing.
When people try to excuse what the government did by saying that it was legal, what they may not be aware of is that the government was using a secret interpretation of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the part under which these acts are being justified. As senator Ron Wyden warned,
The fact is, anyone can read the plain text of the PATRIOT Act, and yet many members of Congress have no idea how the law is being secretly interpreted by the executive branch, because that interpretation is classified. It’s almost as if there were two PATRIOT Acts, and many members of Congress have not read the one that matters. Our constituents, of course, are totally in the dark. Members of the public have no access to the secret legal interpretations, so they have no idea what their government believes the law actually means.
Note that the secret interpretation of the law in its use in the NSA snooping cases could not be challenged since the programs themselves were secret. So we have layer upon layer of secrecy, the net result of which is that the government feels that it can do almost any damn thing it wants to.