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“I never Metadata I didn't like.”
Metadata is an important new way for government officials and Microsoft executives to talk around the fact that they are spying on the public. If they were vacuuming up your personal information, that would be profoundly threatening. If they are merely gathering metadata, that is a key weapon in the War on Terror, as well as whatever the war is that Microsoft is waging. And it is important to remember that all the rules are changed during "wartime." All is fair, they say.
edit Patriot Act
Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act was enacted. (We famously "had to pass it, to find out what the letters stand for" — though the key takeaway point is that to ever change or repeal it would be unpatriotic.) This was back in the days of George W. Bush, when America crippled itself from incompetence. The Act provided for several efficiency improvements of the Fourth Amendment, such as the secret and anonymous anti-terrorism courts that have worked so well in Peru.
In the Barack Obama years, America voted for change and began crippling itself not from incompetence but overt self-hate. The NSA began collecting metadata, such as the time, phone number, and length of all your phone calls. The NSA does not listen to the calls. That would be data. The NSA only wants metadata (unless the metadata makes it suspicious). Your privacy is protected because the NSA cannot tell what you said to your bookie, your pimp, or your mistress.
The U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act was an emergency wartime measure, even though Congress never actually declared war, Bush did something involving a lot of troops but it wasn't war (nor in the right country), and Obama refuses even to name the enemy, because it probably looks like his son would look if he had one.
Collecting metadata is as harmless as looking at the envelope when you write a letter. The postman obviously cannot read the envelope carefully enough to avoid putting it in your neighbor's mailbox, so the Post Office photographs all of them. But this doesn't threaten privacy either, because the NSA cannot tell what you wrote to your bookie, your pimp, or your mistress. Likewise, your neighbor never learns anything that might come back to haunt you when she looks at your mail in her mailbox, because she is merely reading metadata (unless she takes it indoors and uses the iron to steam the letters open).
Moreover, an administration whose Homeland Secretary called the Tea Party movement terror waiting to happen, and whose IRS made sure to audit any group with Tea Party in its name, surely doesn't care if the recipient of one of your phone calls or letters is a Tea Party member. You are not even at risk of investigation if you receive one of their robo-dialed calls.
With email, the metadata and the data are in the same place. However, after the NSA vacuums up your emails, a computer program scans for that blank line that separates the "header" from the "body." Then it stops and only stores the header, because the government is all about protecting your privacy.
edit How we know
The way we know that the NSA is only collecting metadata is because it said so, soon after Wikileaks disclosed that James Clapper was lying under oath when he told Congress that the NSA wasn't collecting anything at all.
Thus, metadata is the latest Fallback Lie. (The first Fallback Lie was the notion that Bill Clinton wasn't having sex in the Oval Office but "only" getting blowjobs.) Fallback Lies predictably make Americans stop being outraged and start asking one another, "Well, that wouldn't be so bad, would it?" This is also the function of metadata.
Many sections of the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act contained an expiration date. This is because there obviously can't be a law that contradicts the Constitution. Except if it is temporary. Congress always voted to extend it, again so as not to seem un-patriotic.
However, in 2015, Section 215 of the Act was set to expire. This was the one the NSA said let it gather metadata. A Presidential election was brewing, as it is in any year that ends with a number from 0 through 9, and candidates began clamoring for repeal. Rand Paul conducted filibusters to keep the U.S. Senate from extending the bill.
Fortunately, Paul's allies in the pro-Constitution Republican Party addressed the dilemma with the U.S.A. F.R.E.E.D.O.M. Act. Obviously, you can be unpatriotic in the cause of freedom. This Act repealed Section 215 entirely. The NSA can no longer collect metadata at all — except by finding other sections of the law it can misinterpret as easily as Section 215). Instead, telephone companies and websites like Google and Facebook are compelled to collect the metadata until the government issues a secret National Security Letter and demands that they turn it over.
Phone companies are so giddy that the Act creates a new hurdle for any new competitors to jump over that some made big new campaign contributions. Facebook and Google, by comparison, are not interested in metadata at all. Google is on the record as intending to "Do the Right Thing," and it has a cubicle of its own inside the Oval Office.
edit Benefits of metadata
During Congressional testimony on the U.S.A. F.R.E.E.D.O.M. Act, the NSA disclosed that gathering metadata was crucial in:
- About 60 prosecutions for money laundering, which is when you destroy information about transactions that the government has not yet said it wanted anyway.
- About 30 prosecutions for illegal immigration, which no one cares about anyway, because the Democrats say they are merely "dreamers" (and vote Democratic) and the Republicans say they are showing their "love for America" (and will work cheap).
- No prosecutions of any terrorists.
Section 215 was a goner, as both parties love the Constitution:
- The Democrats love it almost as much as they love a large, permanent spying bureaucracy paying dues to a union hall that sends hundreds of leafletters onto the streets the day before Election Day.
- The Republicans love it almost as much as they love a confusing bill with a gimmicky title that does the opposite of what it seems to.
Democrats call the Constitution "a living document." Republicans think that's just sleazy, but intone that it "is not a suicide pact." Together, this means that they can pull new definitions out of any bodily orifice.
edit The jig is up
The Republican Congress tried to write a clarification of the law the NSA said let it do what it originally said it would never do. The effort failed and that part of the Patriot Act was repealed in November 2015, on schedule. The NSA promised it would wind up its program, while it searches the books for another law that might allow it, but asked the secret and anonymous court whether it wouldn't be all right to retain the phone calls it had already vacuumed up for three more months of analysis.
edit The corporate world
It is not only in government that metadata is a form of spying that is not threatening. When you plug a thumbdrive into Windows 8, it contacts
microsoft.com and does something involving metadata. (If you are offline, you instead get a helpful message that something is wrong with your thumbdrive.)
Metadata means Microsoft is not reading your files; only their names, lengths, dates, and checksums, to compare against the inventory at the venerable website
WomenPeeing. Your privacy is protected, because Microsoft has no way of knowing whether your files are anything that Microsoft would like to keep track of, report as stolen to one of its "marketing partners," report to the government if it got one of those secret National Security letters (without telling you, because that would be a felony), or simply delete.
Besides, Microsoft is no more suspect than is the U.S. Government. Microsoft's motives are clear: to steer you away from software that effortlessly runs your computer forever, and into a service contract where things work differently every year, except that everything stops working entirely if you don't keep your subscription up-to-date. Their interests are the same as yours.
Likewise, the routers that Xfinity has installed up and down the street, including on the utility pole next to your house, are for the innocent purpose of offering you Internet services. These routers must vacuum up every packet sent into or within your house. However, they are only collecting metadata to see if a packet is addressed to Xfinity — such as to sign up for service. Xfinity has no reason to find out who you are currently subscribed with, nor especially what you are using that subscription to send and receive, even if you got an Attractive Offer in the mail that Xfinity could provide it for less money. This is because Xfinity values your privacy — even more so if you are not a customer.
Collecting metadata does not violate the citizen's privacy, because the government is not collecting all the data, so the citizen still retains a little privacy. In the same way, it is not a "taking" of a citizen's home if the Planning Commission declares that there are still one or two permitted uses for the property, such as a wildlife refuge or a hay field. Metadata is the public-policy equivalent of a mugger stealing your wallet but handing you back a $20 bill so you can get a cab back home.
You can go to court to sue against the collection of metadata. Somewhere in the nation, there may be a receptive judge. Most will just tell you that you lack "standing." Your role is to fight the collection of metadata not by suing but by voting for Democrats or by voting for Republicans (see above).
In case any confusion remains, you cannot enter the courtroom without emptying your pockets and passing through a metal detector. The bailiff does not want to take your property — only to examine every bit of it, like metadata. Taking your property would require a court order, for which he would have to go next door.
edit See also
For additional entertaining ways to ignore the Constitution to avoid having to violate it, see:
Additionally, Metta World Peace is the basketball player formerly known as Ron Artest. Someday he will explain how World Peace is advanced by roaming into the stands at Auburn Hills, Michigan to try to kill Detroit Pistons fans who dissed him.