Five Myths About Privacy
. The collection of phone numbers and other “metadata” isn’t much of a threat to privacy.
Don’t worry, argue defenders of these surveillance programs: The government is gathering innocuous data, not intimate secrets. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” President Obama declared. Intelligence agencies are “looking at phone numbers and durations of calls; they are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content.”
But metadata about phone calls can be quite revealing. Whom someone is talking to may be just as sensitive as what’s being said. Calls to doctors or health-care providers can suggest certain medical conditions. Calls to businesses say something about a person’s interests and lifestyle. Calls to friends reveal associations, potentially pointing to someone’s political, religious or philosophical beliefs.
Even when individual calls are innocuous, a detailed phone record can present a telling portrait of the person associated with a telephone number. Collect millions of those records, and there’s the potential to trace the entire country’s social and professional connections.
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