Despite the NSA’s Claims, It’s Ridiculously Easy to Identify Someone from Metadata

The National Security Administration has been insisting that the metadata collected from phone records cannot reveal someone’s identity or the content of their phone calls. President Obama pushed this narrative back in June as well:

As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.

Aside from the fact that metadata can reveal quite a bit about someone — even without names and content — the claim that metadata is “anonymous” has been completely crushed by two Stanford researchers who did a quick little research project with very little money. Gizmodo reports:

Jonathan Mayer and Patrick Mutchler collected 5,000 phone numbers from volunteers using an Android app they designed for the research project. In a preliminary, low-effort sweep of public information on Yelp, Google Places, and Facebook, the two researchers were able to match 27% of numbers with an individual name. When they dug a little deeper — Googling 100 phone numbers individually — they matched 60 numbers in just one hour. Adding in the previous sources boosted that to 73.

Then, to simulate the data crunching capabilities of an organization as huge as the NSA, Mayer and Mutchler ran the 100 phone numbers through Intelius, “a cheap consumer-oriented service” offering reverse phone number lookup and public records searches. This, combined with the prior two search methods, led to a grand total of 91 out of 100 numbers matched with an individual or business.

Recall that the NSA has defended itself by saying it only compels phone companies to turn over phone numbers, not names. Of course, there’s a workaround that allows the FBI to issue a National Security Letter, a document requiring no judicial oversight, compelling companies to disclose names. Even if that wasn’t the case, if two academics running a quick-and-dirty experiment on a shoestring budget can identify phone numbers with 91% accuracy, it’s not hard to believe that an organization with the NSA’s largesse could close that 9% gap.

So much for metadata being totally anonymous. With just a little bit effort, it’s rather easy to connect phone numbers to individuals.

Isn’t that comforting?