Blog Support 720-663-7669

PRISM Metadata Danger: I just made you say underwear! Update

Monday, March 02, 2015 by Katie Zulanas

Picture of Underwear for PRISM Metadata*Update:  We hear a lot about “big data” these days, and I am being asked, “What difference does it make if the government or a corporation can see the phone numbers people dial?” Most of us feel a bit uneasy, and the creepy feeling of being watched gets a bit stronger as we hear about these entities also having access to our internet traffic, social media activity and emails. 


None of us really wants EVERYTHING we do exposed to the general public. However, you, I, and other honest, well-meaning Americans might think, “How bad could this really be?”  After all, the president has assured us the “"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”  And Senator Graham has remarked,” I don’t think you’re talking to terrorists. I know you’re not. I know I’m not. So, we don’t have anything to worry about.”  Wow. I guess we can all give a sigh of relief, right? Hardly!  The “metadata” referred to is actually “a real and present danger” in a form we have not yet seen.


What is “metadata” and why is it more dangerous to our freedom than the actual content of my emails or phone conversations?  Metadata refers to “data about data.”  This may include the time, location and purpose of the data.  For instance, what number you called, where you were, what time you placed the call.  That seems a bit boring, doesn’t it?  Let me illustrate what can be done with this metadata, which can be downright frightening.


You may have seen or heard about a little handheld, electronic “Twenty Question” game.  This simple ball asks you a series of twenty questions, to which you answer “yes” or “no” by pushing a button with the Peanut Butter as example of simple metatdata from a program like PRISMgoal being to have the game display what item you are thinking of in twenty questions or less.  As an engineering student, I had classes in artificial intelligence, where we studied how statistics are used to analyze data to produce predictions or more intelligent responses.  It was very interesting, and what I learned was that it really worked!  That was brought home to me when this little $20 game figured out I was thinking “peanut butter” with 19 questions.  Although I knew how it was done, I still found it amazing. 


And that is the potential of metadata.  


Just think, if you could gather enough data about a medical condition, its symptoms and treatments from all over the world, well, this statistical model would have the potential to help diagnose diseases earlier and provide better, more effective treatments.  Wonderful!  Putting data together with the expertise of great doctors and scientists has the potential to increase health and decrease suffering.  You can imagine many other scenarios that would help schools, businesses and organizations provide better programs and services.  The real power of metadata is the ability to use statistics to “predict” outcomes. 


That is also the real threat.


The ability to predict an outcome allows someone to cater to us in our understanding of the world.  We have probably all experienced this when an ad for hotels appears in online articles we read and in the sidebar of our email account, when we have been most recently been researching hotel room rates on the internet.  There is nothing really wrong with that is there?  We might even consider it helpful.  So what if a bit of metadata is gathered about us from here or there…but, of course, if a lot of metadata is gathered about a large number of people, well then you have statistical patterns.


In general, most of us feel the sheer size of the population guards our anonymity.  I mean, who would really want to delve into my details—personally, I always joke mine are pretty boring.  So, what do we really have to worry about, Senator Graham?  The answer is “Segmentation.”


Metadata can be grouped and segmented to predict behavior,Picture of Group Think from Metadata Segmentation likes/dislikes, and beliefs of a particular group.  While it might be cost prohibitive to target me specifically, many individuals can be grouped together using statistical analysis and these groups can be presented with influences tailored to their style of communication, behavior and understanding of the world.  Directing advertising to a group of people becomes cost effective.  Data-gatherers and advertisers remind us that it is not personally targeted…but it is targeted to a segment.  The response to the messaging is measured and the segments are reorganized to produce better results.


Today, many of us get our news via the internet.  What if an entity decided your “segment” would be most “helped” by seeing news “tailored” to your particular understanding?  Your search would produce only articles which would “most benefit” you and “assist” you to fit into common understanding, a la 1984.  You can see how this could be misused to influence to a particular point of view, as opposed to the freedom of the press to present us with all points of view.   


No one could deny that we have more information available than ever before, but how do we discern truth amidst this overload?   In the past, most people were more subject to nature, both its beautiful order and its seemingly capricious demands.  Walking to work everyday in all sorts of weather is a lot more likely to produce well-grounded, common sense than logging-in to a “virtual world” in your home office.

As a practical, well-educated woman who is both a mother and a businesswoman, I believe I have my fair share of common sense and would not describe myself as “weak-minded” at all.  In fact, most acquaintances reading this are chuckling as they reflect on how well the word “bull-headed” might be used to describe me—I am a true Taurus.  Nevertheless, I was initially amused listening to “Pinch Me” by Bare Naked Ladies several years ago when they reached the line, “I just made you say ‘underwear’,” and sure enough, their melody and rhyming had made the word “underwear” come into my mind without any intention on my part. 

What was amusing before, upon reflection, has become alarming.  It was like there was a way to create a thought reflex--almost like a doctor can test my knee reflex with a well-aimed rubber hammer.  By studying statistical patterns of metadata, it is conceivable that I could be influenced by 'meta messaging'--a secondary, communication of which I may not be fully aware.  I am not worried about a funny line from a song, nor getting a melody stuck in my head.  What frightens me most, is how easily I can be subtly influenced and manipulated… regardless of my level of common sense or awareness.

Considering that I spend most of my day on “automatic,”—not really thinking deeply about each issue, if even a small, inexpensive game can predict I am thinking “peanut butter” and a song can make me say ‘underwear,’ what defense do I have against an entity with tremendous resources seeking to use metadata in a malicious manner?   
The science would say “Very little.”


It is our government’s responsibility to protect our freedom and NOT foster collection and storage of metadata, which could be conceivably be used maliciously by any entity—foreign or domestic.  It will be our personal challenge to develop our common sense--our innate ability to recognize truth--so as not to become pawns upon the stage of first-world civilization. 



Katherine Zulanas is a small business owner from Highlands Ranch, CO. 
With degrees from Rensselaer, Fairfield University and UCONN, her business  develops websites and social media marketing strategies.

"Since Snowden's June 6th revelations about massive NSA spying, we have learned that all Americans who communicate via telephone or the Internet (who doesn't?) have had all of their communications swept up by the federal government for two-plus years. The government initially claimed that the NSA has gathered only telephone numbers and billing data. Now we know that the NSA has captured and stored the content of trillions of telephone conversations, texts and emails, and can access that content at the press of a few computer keys. All of this happened in the dark, with the permission of President Obama, with the knowledge and consent of fewer than 20 members of Congress who were forbidden from doing anything about it by the laws they themselves had written, and based on secret legal arguments accepted by a secret court that keeps its records secret even from the judges who sit on the court."
Domestic Spying is Dangerous