The ACLU of California has released a new policy paper, “Metadata: Piecing Together a Privacy Solution,” discussing the personal information that can be gleaned from metadata and what it means now that metadata is a target for surveillance by the National Security Agency and others. Here’s information from the introduction:
Generally speaking, the government cannot record or obtain the contents of your communications without at least a search warrant. But “metadata,” information other than communications content, is often treated differently under the law. As a result, government entities ranging from local police departments to the NSA have asserted broad authority to acquire location information, associational data, records of purchases and financial transactions, and more, all of which can reveal intimate details of your life.
And the government doesn’t merely believe that it can collect this kind of information without a search warrant — it is actually doing so, in quantities that beggar the imagination. Recent revelations about NSA surveillance programs reveal that the agency has attempted to obtain information about every phone call and every Internet communication carried by U.S. networks. Law enforcement agencies have tracked the location of individuals for months at a time. Telecommunications companies have revealed that they respond to millions of requests for information from law enforcement agencies at all levels, and at least one carrier provides the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) with access to records about every call that has crossed the carrier’s network since 1987. Yet despite the obvious privacy concerns that arise from these practices, all of this regularly occurs without the judicial oversight and checks and balances that the Constitution requires. […]
But in the modern world, non-content does not mean non-sensitive. In fact, the explosion of data mining, targeted advertising, and other new technologies is driven by the realization that companies and the government can learn a great deal about an individual simply by recording his or her actions. Lawmakers, judges, academics, and two separate committees assembled by the executive branch (the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board) have all recognized the need to reevaluate the distinction between content and metadata.
This paper contends that, in light of extensive evidence of the potential and actual abuse of metadata collection, metadata should generally receive the same legal protection as the contents of a communication.