Metadata monitoring a menace? Meh.
June 8, 2013 4 Comments
On the latest Week in Politics segment of All Things considered, David Brooks drops an amusing reference to “megadata,” which Robert Siegel repeats. One can be forgiven for thinking they are talking about a Transformers villain. Guest commentator Jane Mayer of the New Yorker supplies the relevant term, “metadata,” and opines on the ongoing surveillance controversy:
And I just want to say, on this question of metadata, which means just the outside of the calls, who you call, for how long, I interviewed someone named Susan Landau(ph) this week, who is an engineer with Sun Microsystems, or she used to be. And she’s an expert in this area of privacy and computers. And she says, people don’t understand metadata is incredibly invasive and revealing.
You don’t need to know the content if you can look at everybody who someone has called. You can figure out a pattern. They can tell if they called their doctor. You can see if there’s a corporate takeover. You can see if there are opponents of the government meeting someplace.
This ability to “figure out a pattern” is known by some as working with circumstantial evidence. It’s no more invasive than when a law enforcement officer decides to pull over a vehicle or otherwise exercise her judgment. It happens thousands of times every day.
On a recent podcast of Please Convince Me, federal investigator and Christian apologist Dan Grossenbach offers an illustration of case building that I think elucidates the metadata concern.
Tasked with intercepting USPS parcels containing illegal drugs, Grossenbach explains how he applies inductive criteria to infer whether a given package contains drugs. He works near the Mexican border, and so knows to narrow his scrutiny to packages bound for the US East Coast. A bad return address on the package increases his suspicion. So does a record of cash or any other untraceable form of payment. The purchase of a tracking number adds to the case, and so on it goes. He must marshal a body of circumstantial evidence–none of which is conclusive by itself–to persuade a judge to issue a warrant to open the package.
It occurs to me that the physical world itself serves as metadata pointing to an individuals’ intent, which, being a product of mind, is a manifestly nonphysical thing. Camera surveillance of a public thoroughfare aided the capture of the Boston Marathon bombing culprits. To walk down a street, to send a package, or to make a phone call–these physical phenomena in themselves do not entail culpability. Rather, it is the decisive inference of intent from all of these that might make one culpable in the eyes of the law.
With some justification, we are all anxious about how our intentions are construed by others, particularly those with some power over us. No wonder that one of Jesus’ most popular admonitions today is “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
Christopher Hitchens capitalized on this fear when he likened God to a “cosmic Kim Jong-Il.” It is against human nature to want to subject ourselves to the accountability of others, but the need for it is an avoidable reality of our existence. As long as we’re not all brainwashed in a totalitarian dystopia, intentions will always be in contention with one another. Aspiring mujaheddin will intend to kill us in mass again. Dedicated law enforcement will intend to stop them. We should be thankful that metadata can and is being used to thwart such evil.
The secret surveillance program does raise some legitimate concerns. What is the system of checks on it? Is it constitutional? (John Yoo at the National Review makes a case that it probably is). Whatever the civil libertarians’ critique is, metadata surveillance is not a problem in itself. The underlying predicament has always been the honor, integrity, and accountability of those in authority. The problem is not one of governance and policy, but one of culture and values.