Scientists at Stanford University: The security services are able to identify you even without any information wiretapping

After analyzing the telephone metadata volunteers - study participants: the date and time of calls made, duration of calls, the location of the caller’s person, where and who originate phone calls, and other attributes of the user connections via the communication network, the researchers came to the alarming conclusion. It appears, metadata are saying about us almost as much as the directly overheard secret services themselves telephone conversations and intercepted sms, access to which the competent authorities need to take a lot of legal and judicial procedures, while access to the data on the time, duration, and location call warrants It does not require (if we talk about the United States). Therefore unlikely to government agencies miss the opportunity to get their hands on the metadata of any interest of their US citizen - is sure edition Stanford News.


However, the same can be extrapolated to other countries, which has created and developed wiretapping, storage and analysis of the information exchanged between users using different communication networks, including in our country with a constantly evolving system of operative-investigative activities ( SORM).

According to a recent analysis of the Stanford researchers, as set out in the published material “Evaluating the privacy properties of telephone meta”, identify personal information about a person, even the state of his health, it is possible using only the metadata (attributes of calls and correspondence). In addition, according to all compounds of one person is not a problem to determine the metadata of thousands of others to join with him, for example, in telephone conversations.

Famous for exposing the illegal actions of the special services of the United States, former CIA and National Security Agency US (NSA) Edward Snowden in 2013, he told the world about the unauthorized collection and analysis of such data on people without their knowledge. However, NSA disown charges of collecting information about citizens, alleging failure to identify to these metadata, even the subscriber identity, stressing at the same time that their collection is not intended to receive confidential information.

The researchers set out to fill in knowledge gaps in the current program of collecting phone metadata Agency for National Security, decided to check in practice, the NSA contradictory statement about the absence of the influence of such a collection of information on users’ privacy. The findings, reported by the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), provide the first empirical data on the properties of confidentiality of telephone metadata. Preliminary versions of the work that had been previously posted on the Internet, has already played a role in federal politics observations and were represented in court documents and letters to legislators in the United States and abroad. The final work can be used to make more informed policy decisions on state supervision and confidentiality of user data.

Under the terms of the Stanford scientists it conducted the experiment, 800 volunteers have been installed on their mobile device MetaPhone application whose function is to receive the data stored in the phone and their subsequent transfer to a third party, in this case - the initiators of the study. Treated as a result was 1.2 million text messages, and a quarter of a million calls. As it turned out, the comparison with the numbers available to the public telephone directories opens to get their hands on such information to a third party a lot of information about a person’s private life, whose meta data was collected and subjected to the uncomplicated analysis. For example, thanks to the information from the metadata of one of the subjects of calls to numbers cardiologist phones and technical support devices for monitoring of cardiac arrhythmias, the initiators of the study pinpointed his medical diagnosis. Another participant in the study probably has a semi-automatic rifle AR - it became aware of the frequent references to the local dealer for trafficking in firearms and customer support hotline, a major producer of these rifles.


One of the excuses the government to permit unrestricted access without going through the procedure for obtaining a warrant, metadata law enforcement and national security authorities is a fundamental belief that it is not secret information. The study in question in the article shows that this assumption is not true.

Study co-author, Stanford graduate student Patrick Matchler stated:

“I was not in the least surprised by how well it turned to find out some very delicate details from the life of the subjects I intuitively felt that our calls can tell a lot about us, but when he saw how well defined medical condition of the person, -. Information, which is considered in our society, especially his personal matter, I was amazed. it was very interesting. ”

And this study concerned only telephone calls and sms. It is difficult to imagine how much information can gather intelligence agencies who have access to social networks, access to data about the calls to the banks, insurance agents, medical and government institutions.


The researchers also found that a large number of people can become unwitting victims of surveillance, based on the observation of just one person. For example, when the NSA considers the metadata associated with the phone of the suspect is allowed to view the data by the method of “two leaps” - it is about collecting information about those subscribers, with whom he spoke, and those with whom they communicate. Suspect A is the human B - it is a “one jump”; person B is human C - is the “leap second.” Scientists have calculated that even at “dvuhpryzhkovoy” scheme for metadata only one person will inevitably be pulled metadata about 25 000 subscribers. Matchler here adds:

“The existing literature on the structure of telephone graphs really did not account for these connections. Their presence proves that some of the legal restrictions NSA access to metadata completely ineffective.”


Although the results of the work are not unexpected, the researchers suggest that the results of the empirical data provide a clear way for future talks between defending the right to privacy of organizations and authorities, because research has shown greater importance of metadata than was previously thought.

The study “Assessment of the properties of confidentiality of telephone metadata” was done in collaboration with John K. Mitchell, Mary and Gordon Kreyri, family professors in the School of Engineering, Jonathan Meier, a scientist at the Stanford School of Engineering and Stanford Law School.

More unwrapped report on the experiment posted on the PNAS online edition.

23 May 2016

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