At a recent debate concerning the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance programs, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden admitted that metadata is used as the basis for killing people.
The comments were made during a debate at Johns Hopkins University, after Georgetown University Law Center professor David Cole detailed the kind of information the government can obtain simply by collecting metadata – who you call, when you call them, how long the call lasts, and how often calls between the two parties are made.
Although NSA supporters often claim such metadata collection is permissible considering the content of the call is not collected, Cole argued that is not the case, since the former general counsel of the NSA, Stewart Baker, has already stated metadata alone is more than enough to reveal vast amounts of an individual’s personal information.
Cole elaborated (you can also watch his explanation around the 14 minute mark of the embedded video):
“Of course knowing the content of a call can be crucial to establishing a particular threat. But metadata alone can provide an extremely detailed picture of a person’s most intimate associations and interests, and it’s actually much easier as a technological matter to search huge amounts of metadata than to listen to millions of phone calls. As NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker has said, 'metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.'
“When I quoted Baker at a recent debate at Johns Hopkins University, my opponent, General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, called Baker’s comment 'absolutely correct,' and raised him one, asserting, ‘We kill people based on metadata.’”
Hayden paused after making this statement – around the 18 minute mark of the video – and then qualified it by adding, “but that’s not what we do with this metadata.”
Presumably, when Hayden emphasizes “this metadata,” he is referring to the information collected from American citizens. In February the US is already using metadata to select targets for drone strikes around the world. In a report for the Intercept, an unnamed drone operator – backed up by documents leaked by Edward Snowden – said the agency analyzes metadata as well as mobile-tracking technology to determine targets, without employing human intelligence to confirm a suspect’s identity.
“People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” the operator said. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”
According to Cole, the realization that the NSA is collecting such vast amounts of information has prompted action from both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Last week, two committees in the House of Representatives recently voted unanimously to support the USA Freedom Act, which would bar the NSA from collecting metadata in bulk.
The data would remain in the possession of telecommunications companies, only to be accessed by the government if it can prove reasonable suspicion to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. As noted by Cole, however, the bill doesn’t address all the facets of the NSA’s surveillance program.
As its currently written, the Freedom Act only applies to American citizens, not foreigners who are also under surveillance, nor does it address what he termed the NSA’s “guerilla-like tactics of inserting vulnerabilities into computer software and drivers, to be exploited later to surreptitiously intercept private communications.”
The NSA designed at least two encryption tools offered by the security firm RSA – one of which was made the default option, and which allowed the NSA to easily infiltrate computer security systems.