Ever since Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government can and does access metadata regularly from people's phone calls and emails, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over what that means.
Defenders of the National Security Agency, the government bureaucracy tasked with doing this surveillance, say that metadata - usually coded info about where and when a communications transmission occurred, plus some other stuff - doesn't reveal private details about your identity or personal life.
Well, researchers at Stanford are about to test that theory… maybe with your help, if you're willing. Through a project dubbed "Metaphone," they're hoping to prove that screening metadata is a little too Big Brother, and they're doing it by taking info from volunteers' Android phones.
The way it works is, you download this Metaphone app on your phone, and it will automatically send your metadata to their labs for analysis. (They promise all the stored data will be erased when they project is completed.)
Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford doctoral student who's helping to run the project, writes that "many in the public aren’t sure who’s telling the truth" about the government's info collecting. "Our aim is to provide rigorous answers about the sensitivity of phone metadata."
This is the first project of its kind to tackle phone metadata; earlier this summer, researchers at MIT set up a web project titled "Immersion," where you can log in with your Yahoo or Gmail accounts and see exactly what your email metadata says about you. (I tried it once myself.)
There's a certain irony in volunteering to fork over your personal data via a phone app to assist a project that aims to prove government shouldn't be able to sift through said data. But hey, you've got to break a few privacy eggs to make that civil-society omelet or something. Freedom ain't free, man.
Adam Weinstein was Fusion's senior editor in charge of digital investigations. He has also worked for Gawker, Mother Jones, and the Wall Street Journal.