While it’s good to hear that the National Security Agency’s dragnet of Verizon customer telephone records doesn’t include audio recordings or transcriptions of calls, that doesn’t mean there’s no cause for alarm. As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports, the metadata that the government is collecting includes a lot of potentially sensitive information that most citizens probably don’t want in the hands of federal officials. Mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau tells Mayer that such data can actually be “much more intrusive” than recording the calls themselves if you can track whom people call from what locations and at what times of day then “you know exactly what is happening.”
For example, Landau says that call metadata can potentially tip government officials off to corporate mergers that are about to occur and on how frequently patients contact their doctors.
“You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members,” she explains, demonstrating how government officials could reach a reasonable conclusion about a person’s medical issues based on a string of phone calls.
Landau this is particularly disturbing when done by the NSA because the FBI is at least required to get permission from the Attorney General when it looks to extract this sort of information from news agencies. In the case of the highly secretive NSA, however, it’s unclear if any such safeguards apply.