Sometimes you have to give up a little privacy in order to find out how much — or how little — privacy you really have. So I handed over the keys to my Gmail account to Cesar Hidalgo, a professor at the MIT Media Lab and the designer of a program called Immersion.
Immersion looks at the volume and frequency of your email traffic. It looks at what’s known as metadata — to/from information. In this sense, it operates similar to the program the National Security Agency uses to collect data on most U.S. phone traffic, as part of its effort to fight terrorism. Neither the NSA nor Immersion can see what you are actually saying to your friends, family and work colleagues. But it’s surprising just how much you can see simply by looking at metadata.
A few minutes after looking at my Immersion profile, Hidalgo had my number. Like a fortune teller, he could immediately ferret out my closest relationships.
For example, my correspondence with my girlfriend, Anita, put her right at the center of my Immersion profile. She appears as a big blue circle. By sorting our emails by month and year, Hidalgo could see that we met four years ago. He could see that things started out slowly, and as we became closer, messages flew back and forth at a faster rate.
“It was a little bit timid in the beginning, and then the relationship intensified,” Hidalgo said with a wink.
Calling It ‘Metadata’ Doesn’t Make Surveillance Less Intrusive
A look at my correspondence with my son showed rather one-sided exchanges that should be familiar to any parent. “For every five emails that you send, he gives you two back,” Hidalgo said. Again, a very accurate reading of a father’s efforts to stay in touch with a wonderful son who is not the best correspondent. Hidalgo could see all that, based on just a few hundred emails.
The analogy to the NSA program is, of course, not perfect. In some ways, NSA investigators know less than Hidalgo does. The government says investigators cannot see identifying information; they just see connections between anonymous numbers.
My Gmail account, on the other hand, conveniently reveals the screen names of my contacts, and that often helps identify who is male and who is female. Leaks from Edward Snowden tell us that the NSA is able to follow these trails much further than Immersion can. The NSA can pursue three “hops,” so it learns not just the name of my contacts, but those of my contacts’ contacts, and even my contacts’ contacts’ contacts.