In defending the NSA’s telephony metadata collection efforts, government officials have repeatedly resorted to one seemingly significant detail: This is just metadata—numbers dialed, lengths of calls. “There are no names, there’s no content in that database,” President Barack Obama told Charlie Rose in June.
No names; just metadata.
New research from Stanford demonstrates the silliness of that distinction. Armed with very sparse metadata, Jonathan Mayer and Patrick Mutchler found it easy—trivially so—to figure out the identity of a caller.
Mayer and Mutchler are running an experiment which works with volunteers who agree to use an Android app, MetaPhone, that allows the researchers access to their metadata. Now, using that data, Mayer and Mutchler say that it was hardly any trouble at all to figure out who the phone numbers belonged to, and they did it in just a few hours.