Two graduate students at Stanford University published a surprising study on collected telephone metadata following last summer's NSA revelations. The study was based on the question of whether telephone metadata was sensitive and the original thought was that it would be, but they never expected to get the results they did.
Jonathan Mayer and Patrick Mutchler found that the metadata was highly sensitive and they were able to infer medical conditions, firearm ownership, and other personal information.
The pair used crowdsourced data and asked participants to run the MetaPhone app on Android smartphones to submit device logs and social network information for review. There were 546 participants that contacted 33,688 unique phone numbers. Some of those numbers were associated with medical offices and from there they were able to narrow it down to a specialty practice such as a dentist, oncologist, neurologist, sexual and reproductive health services and many more.
For some of the participants they were able to determine a data pattern. For example, one participant communicated with several neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service and a hotline for a drug used to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis. Another participant made calls to a firearm store that specializes in AR semiautomatic rifle patterns as well as a customer service line for a firearm manufacturer that produces the same gun.
They concluded that the science behind the study was evident--metadata is highly sensitve. The study they conducted was with hundreds of participants over several months. The NSA phone records include millions of Americans over several years.
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