Earlier this week, Mike Masnick of Techdirt complained that anyone who dismisses the NSA’s collection of metadata around people’s phone calls and emails (as revealed in the Snowden Leaks) “because it’s ‘just metadata’ doesn’t know what metadata is.” The argument is that you can learn a lot about who a person associates with and what they might talk about without actually reading their emails or listening to their phone calls. Coincidentally, MIT Media Lab released a tool this month that allows people to analyze their own email metadata. Called Immersion, it scrapes a user’s Gmail account looking only at the metadata (From, To, Cc and Timestamp fields of the emails) to present an overview of their network.
If you’re comfortable handing over that data to the MIT Team — they promise to let you delete it — give it a try to show what it reveals about you. The team tells me that 210,000 people have run the tool so far. I’m one of them. Here’s my own Immersion chart showing my network dating back to 2004, when I started using Gmail. I’ve removed my contacts’ names (for privacy reasons!) but labeled some of the nodes and clusters. Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at MIT, was less inhibited in sharing his contacts.
It’s worth noting that this tool only works because of our tendency to archive everything. I’ve saved over 70,000 emails rather than deleting them.
My email volume was highest in 2009 and 2010 when I used my personal account for work purposes. What stood out to me was the patterns in my clustering. Significant others are easy to identify and it’s quite easy to find some of my story sources — which could potentially be interesting to a snooper — as they were disconnected from the rest of my networks.
“The fact is that, as I argued two weeks ago, the metadata is what the spooks want for the simple reason that it’s machine-readable and therefore searchable,” says John Naughton at the Guardian. “It’s what makes comprehensive internet-scale surveillance possible.”
If nothing else, the tool is a way to quantify who matters to you, and thanks to a sliding time scale, you can see as certain people rise and fall in importance to you; their bubbles swell or shrink or fade away. Even though it’s just metadata, getting that perspective on my social network was almost as poignant as time traveling through old emails and gchats — an experience described too well in this Thought Catalog post from 2011.
The tools’ creators say its release was not related to the NSA revelations, but they do say they hope it will make people think about privacy. “It helps explore privacy by showing users data that they have already shared with others,” says the site.
I asked them what they mean by “others” here. “The other party that the user has already shared his/her data with in this case would be Google, as we are currently using Gmail as the email provider,” says Deepak Jagdish of the MIT Media Lab by email.
Thanks to the way we live today, when most of our digital communications rest with third parties, we are constantly leaving digital trails with them that reveal much about us. Google infamously made its users’ most intimate clusters of Gmail contacts public when it launched the social network Buzz — a privacy mistake it came to regret. And of course, it’s now becoming evident that those trails are of interest to intelligence agencies.
If you don’t use Gmail, you can perform a similar analysis of Facebook using a tool from Wolfram. So, what does the Immersion team plan to do with all this valuable metadata handed over to it by navel-gazing users?
“Our primary reason for allowing users to save their metadata is for a faster launch of the visualization when they visit next time,” says Jagdish. “Apart from that, in the future we also plan to calculate some aggregate statistics for all the users who have saved their Immersion profile, but at no point will we publish any data of any personalized form.”
Still, you might want to delete your data after you use the tool, if you do indeed worry about your privacy.
Sourece : ForbesTech