Smartphone meta data can reveal private details of users: Study

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A new Stanford University study shows that telephone metadata – the numbers you dial, the length of your calls – can reveal a lot of your personal details including health condition. Usually the debate about privacy is limited to the main data like conversations, numbers etc. But as this study shows, metadata, which is much more easily accessible to governments can be an equally big source of private information. Additionally, following metadata “hops” from one person’s communications (tracking the metadata of the persons you called) can involve thousands of other people.
The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide the first empirical data on the privacy properties of telephone metadata. Preliminary versions of the work, previously made available online, have already played a role in federal surveillance policy and have been cited in litigation filings and letters to legislators in both the United States and abroad. The final work could be used to help make more informed policy decisions about government surveillance and consumer data privacy.
The computer scientists built a smartphone application that retrieved the previous call and text message metadata – the numbers, times and lengths of communications – from more than 800 volunteers’ smartphone logs. In total, participants provided records of more than 250,000 calls and 1.2 million texts. The researchers then used a combination of inexpensive automated and manual processes to illustrate both the extent of the reach – how many people would be involved in a scan of a single person – and the level of sensitive information that can be gleaned about each user.
From a small selection of the users, the Stanford researchers were able to infer, for instance, that a person who placed several calls to a cardiologist, a local drugstore and a cardiac arrhythmia monitoring device hotline likely suffers from cardiac arrhythmia. Another study participant likely owns an AR semiautomatic rifle, based on frequent calls to a local firearms dealer that prominently advertises AR semiautomatic rifles and to the customer support hotline of a major firearm manufacturer that produces these rifles.
One of the government’s justifications for allowing law enforcement and national security agencies to access metadata without warrants is the underlying belief that it’s not sensitive information. This work shows that assumption is not true.
“I was somewhat surprised by how successfully we inferred sensitive details about individuals,” said study co-author Patrick Mutchler, a graduate student at Stanford. “It feels intuitive that the businesses you call say something about yourself. But when you look at how effectively we were able to identify that a person likely had a medical condition, which we consider intensely private, that was interesting.”
They also found that a large number of people could get caught up in a single surveillance sweep. When the National Security Agency examines metadata associated with a suspect’s phone, it is allowed to examine a “two-hop” net around the suspect. Suspect A calls person B is one hop; person B calls person C is the second hop. Analysts can then comb the metadata of anyone within two hops of the suspect.
By extrapolating participant data, the researchers estimated that the NSA’s current authorities could allow for surveilling roughly 25,000 individuals – and possibly more – starting from just one “seed” phone user.