A German Green Party politician writes in the New York Times about how the German people can no longer trust president Obama after Edward Snowden’s revelations on the NSA. He writes:
In Germany, whenever the government begins to infringe on individual freedom, society stands up. Given our history, we Germans are not willing to trade in our liberty for potentially better security. Germans have experienced firsthand what happens when the government knows too much about someone. In the past 80 years, Germans have felt the betrayal of neighbors who informed for the Gestapo and the fear that best friends might be potential informants for the Stasi. Homes were tapped. Millions were monitored.
Now we’re told that the NSA only collects “metadata”, not our actual conversations. So how bad can that be? Could the Stasi have functioned with such limitations on it?
Well, it appears the NSA can and does store much more data on us than just our phone metadata, tapping in as it does to the entire Internet, but the metadata by itself allows the NSA to know far more about us than we realize. Here’s how the German politician puts it:
Lots of young Germans have a commitment not only to fight against fascism but also to stand up for their own individual freedom. Germans of all ages want to live freely without having to worry about being monitored by private companies or the government, especially in the digital sphere.
That was my motivation for publishing the metadata I received from T-Mobile. Together with Zeit Online, the online edition of the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit, I published an infographic of six months of my life for all to see. With these 35,830 pieces of data, you can follow my travels across Germany, you can see when I went to sleep and woke up, a trail further enriched with public information from my social networking sites: six months of my life viewable for everybody to see what exactly is possible with “just metadata.”
Three weeks ago, when the news broke about the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata in the United States, I knew exactly what it meant. My records revealed the movements of a single individual; now imagine if you had access to millions of similar data sets. You could easily draw maps, tracing communication and movement. You could see which individuals, families or groups were communicating with one another. You could identify any social group and determine its major actors.
All of this is possible without knowing the specific content of a conversation, just technical information — the sender and recipient, the time and duration of the call and the geolocation data.
Click on the link he gives to the “infographic” and press the “play” button, and then watch how the metadata shows all the traveling he did over a six month period, all the people he called or who called him, all the times he received or sent text messages, and all the time he was connected to the Internet. Add to this data all the other “metadata” the NSA must be collecting on us, and then all the actual data they likely are accumulating, and no doubt the government will soon be able to draw up “lists” of any class of people they want to.
I understand the power of this to help the government discover the bad guys. What I am concerned about is who defines who the “bad guys” are. Didn’t the IRS just define being a member of a Tea Party group reason for increased scrutiny and abuse? Hasn’t the government recently been tapping the phone lines of reporters to uncover who is leaking things they don’t want leaked? Didn’t we just learn this weekend that the U.S. has been conducting extensive surveillance on most of our allies?
These are all examples of a government that has far less restraints on it than we only recently believed it had. But then what should we expect when government continues its explosive growth in these areas and keeps so many secrets that “consent of the governed” is literally impossible?