By David Glance, University of Western Australia
Researchers at MIT’s Media Lab have created an application called Immersion, which uses your email to display all of the people you communicate with in a highly visual way. Although it was designed primarily as a way of illustrating a person’s connections and social networks, it has served to highlight the amount of information that is encoded in communication metadata and what can be done with that data without even needing the actual content of emails.
This is especially relevant at the moment with the revelations that the US secret service has been engaged in widespread surveillance using email and other personal data sourced from companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.
Email metadata refers to information such as the sender and recipients of an email. On its own, this information may not be particularly very interesting, especially if as in my case, it is one of 53,129 emails that is in my work Gmail account.
But when visualised using a social network graph, relationships with particular people emerge along with their place in particular networks. Relationships emerge from the metadata that reflect working structures, projects I have worked on and companies that I have interacted with.
The social network graph becomes even more revealing when combined with the email metadata from each connection in the social graph. Friends of friends become visible; connections between individuals’ social networks show how distant they are from each other.
You can see this visualised using another tool called the Challenger Network Graph that takes Facebook data and produces its own social network diagram. Unlike email, Facebook metadata contains much more detailed information about relationships between people. It is, after all, designed for this purpose. Consequently, the metadata is even more revealing than email in terms of showing the strengths of connections between individuals and groups.
You can also visualise your social network graph on LinkedIn using an application called InMaps. As before, this graph is likely to highlight relationships from places of work, but will also show customers and other social connections.
The aggregation of this metadata reveals a wealth of information about one’s personal relationships and highlights the power of having large amounts of small bits of information.
For the public, who are slowly becoming aware of the concepts of metadata and what it can reveal, this is an important step in understanding how it underlies our privacy on the internet.
For organisations and countries, the consequences of other countries or organisations having access to this data also comes to the surface. Even something as innocuous as social network analysis can reveal much information about corporate and political activity.
The beauty of this is that claims can be made that as long as you are not looking at the “content” of communications, you are not doing anything wrong. But one doesn’t need the content to reveal the full extent of what sort of communication is taking place.
Encrypting emails may make the senders and receivers believe that their communication is safe, but the mere fact that a communication is encrypted will make that communication stand out and highlight a peculiarity in that relationship. It is in and of itself another important bit of metadata that acts as telltale to the relationship and its attendant connections.
There is really not very much people can do to protect the digital traces left by metadata, short of not communicating electronically in the first place. Everything we do electronically leaks information through metadata, most of it hidden from its originators.
The fact that the Russian security services are resorting to manual typewriters, paper and presumably microfiche is a testament to the understanding that anything that is electronic is vulnerable to being leaked. Perhaps we will start to see a resurgence in the use of paper, pen and carrier pigeons.
David Glance does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.