Former NSA Chief: “We Kill People Based on Metadata”

Last month at a debate held at John Hopkins University to weigh in on the benefits and drawbacks of the NSA’s digital surveillance programs, journalists and the public alike were given a one time only opportunity to confront and question many of the leaders and officials who were responsible for the creation and expansion of the spying programs we all know and hate today.

During Georgetown University law professor David Cole’s spar off with former head of both the NSA and CIA Michael Hayden, the general was quoted as saying that not only does the NSA collect that specific information on suspects, they also (and clearly without impunity), “kill people based on metadata”.

The implications of this are massive, concluding that the American government is actively surveilling, tracking, and hunting down terrorists from the sky in a closely coordinated effort between agents at the NSA and members of the widely publicized and even more widely feared US drone program.

Metadata, as most of us know by now, is based on the general outline of calls or emails sent between two parties, rather than the specific content of the transmission itself. Factors like who was called, the time of the call, how long each call lasted, and how often two people are calling each other supposedly gives the agency enough data to work with.

This then raises the question: is metadata enough to justify an execution? The NSA’s general counsel Stewart Baker had an answer ready and waiting during the debate.

“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. Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life, if you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.”

Hayden was quick to supplement his original quote with the stipulation of “but that’s not what we do with this metadata”. The assumption on his emphasis is that he’s referring specifically to the data collected on American citizens, rather than what they gather from other countries abroad.

However with that in mind, the entirety of that program and their ability to differentiate which data comes from which country could be under threat, if the House of Representatives and their committees have anything to say about it that is.

Just last week a bill called the USA Freedom Act (once again we just need to take a quick sidebar to recognize the genius of that name), passed through the House Judiciary Committee by a unanimous vote with flying colors. The bill would place stringent restrictions on the amount and nature of metadata collected by the NSA, basically stripping programs like MUSCULAR down to their bare essentials and completely removing their ability to suck up data in bulk the way they have up until now.