Much has been said already about the recent news that Verizon, as well as other providers, have been subpoenaed to provide phone records and other "metadata" about their users. The Obama administration would like you to believe that this is simply benign information, and does not compromise your privacy. "So what if they know who or when I called somebody, they don't know what I said". Well, that's where you may be wrong.
In light of recent revelations about the NSA's "PRISM" data mining system, it's becoming clear that there is a bit of judicial sleight of hand at play here.
Here's the thing. Metadata is indeed pretty benign as far as overall privacy is concerned. It does not contain any actual content. However the government uses this information to build network maps of who knows who, who contacts who, and so forth.
However, without the actual content of these conversations, texts, or emails, it's still only but so useful. This is where PRISM comes in handy along side data capturing techniques created by the NSA. PRISM appears to be a method of data mining. Preliminary research seems to suggest it is a product of the same name created by a company by the name of Palantir. Palantir is a leading provider of data mining and analysis software for the CIA and other three letter acronym agencies within the US Government.
What data mining software like this does, is it gathers information and data from disparate sources, and finds the links between them, forming a whole picture. You then have at your fingertips records of who a person called, when, and the actual content of that call as well all conveniently bundled and packaged for analysis by officials.
Metadata is being gathered under judicial oversight. This provides a level of plausible deniability for the government. "Look, it's only metadata! Your privacy is not at risk!". However, what they are not telling you is that previous whistleblowers have already outed the fact that the NSA has been tapping into internet data pipes and siphoning off traffic for many years now, the first known instance being as far back as 2006.
In fact the NSA is getting so good at monitoring all internet and phone traffic, they are building a huge datacenter in Utah that will set the record for the most amount of data storage capacity in the entire world.
Collecting the raw data provides content, metadata provides context. If you are listening into a stream of a phone call made at 6:01PM on a particular Tuesday, you are hearing a conversation between two unidentifiable persons. However, if you have the record of every phone call made at 6:01PM on a particular Tuesday, you now have the context of that conversation ( who's calling who ) and the content ( the actual recorded conversation ). As mentioned previously, the government is able to waive a court document in our faces claiming judicial oversight, while collecting basically everything without that same oversight.
So now we are starting to see the whole picture. The government is clearly showing the intent to monitor, index, catalog, and track the movement of pretty much every communication through the digital infrastructure, and then some. We haven't even delved into what other sources can be linked with data mining applications, such as financial records and emails.
However, this much is clear. The government is watching everything. And they are using clever judicial loopholes in order to spy on every American citizen, while avoiding and dodging every attempt at oversight. And now you know, that the argument of "it's just metadata" does not hold water. It unfortunately goes much, much deeper.