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I was doing some research into encrypted Voice of IP connections recently (basically when you use the Internet to talk to someone like a phone call). That also sends quite a bit in the clear. You wouldn’t know what the call was about, but you’d know how long it lasted, the kinds of codecs used (such as if the call includes video), and with a little work, you might be able to determine that one side spoke for 20 seconds, and the other side spoke for 15 seconds, and so on.


The encryption debate only muddies the water. The government has all the damning information stored in the metadata of cell records anyway. I’ve been warning about the dangers of a collection of metadata warehoused out in Utah for years (or now warehoused by the carriers).

I spent an entire military career in SIGINT/ELINT. We did amazing work (well before computers) with the very simple signals of the time applying just a bit of brainpower & persistence. Modern cellphones and computers are a goldmine compared to what we had to work with, giving off all kinds of signals and storing all kinds of information.

Take your average citizen who intentionally “flies below the government’s radar” on gun ownership issues. Give me two cell towers that overlap a shooting range or a gun store and it is child’s play to identify all the cellphones at the range. From there it’s a simple matter of analysis to start identifying the owner’s friends, family, habits and patterns of life. Even if our subject doesn’t go to the range, he’s probably in contact with someone who does.

Even the lack of a signal is telling (just ask Osama Bin Laden). Consider two phones that power down at about the same time during the day when they near a motel. Those are pretty good signs of a sexual encounter. It certainly gives prying eyes an idea where & when to look and who to look at.

The real danger of metadata is it’s historical nature, however. Consider the San Bernardino shootings. By backtracking the signals and patterns from those phones regular citizens could be called on to justify their movements in the past. Did they and the shooter just happen to grab coffee at the same Starbucks 5 days a week at about the same time, or did the two of you intentionally meet?

On TV Cop shows they’re always saying “there are no coincidences.” That is false. The harder you look, the deeper you dig, the more coincidences you find. In the wrong hands innocent coincidences become damning evidence. Having to justify your movements months or years after the fact is a terrible burden to place on citizens. That’s the reason local law enforcement are obtaining Stingray technology.

We used to say that they fed would drown in all the data, but parallel computing and HADOOP chained servers and the right software makes sorting through all the metadata already stored child’s play.

The danger is in the patterns, not the content.


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