September 8, 2013

Metadata = Data? You bet

As I mentioned in last month’s column, the story of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance made public by Edward Snowden has legs. 

In fact, if the story were an insect, it would be a millipede. Now before you send me a nasty correction, let the record show that I know that, by definition, an insect is limited to six legs but “millipede” sounds so much better than “arthropod.” It would seem that in this brave, new digital age there should be not only millipedes but mega, giga, tera and even petapedes. No matter. Suffice to say that this story shows no signs of ending well or soon.

As of Aug 21, the latest twist to this thriller revealed that two years ago, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court strongly admonished the NSA for sweeping up domestic- along with foreign-intelligence gathering. The crux of the issue was that, without a warrant, the NSA had no authority to spy on U.S. citizens and in fact, were violating the fourth amendment protecting citizens from unreasonable search.

I have spent some weeks researching the method that NSA must have used to intercept U.S. citizen’s phone calls, emails and other Internet transactions and could only find the political and economic aspects — how they pressured Internet providers such as Verizon and AT&T to “share” their data unbeknownst to U.S. users. There was very little information about the actual techniques applied to the data once the NSA had it in their hands. So I decided to abandon the experiential approach and apply deduction instead. After all, I had taught the database-management course in my career as computer-science professor so why not put to use what I had learned? Here’s the way I think it went:

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