Michael Hayden Gleefully Admits: We Kill People Based On Metadata

from the just-metadata dept

Since the very first Snowden leak a year ago, one of the more common refrains from defenders of the program is “but it’s just metadata, not actual content, so what’s the big deal?” Beyond the fact that other programs do collect content, we’ve pointed out time and time again that the “just metadata, don’t worry” argument only makes sense if you don’t know what metadata reveals. Anyone with any knowledge of the subject knows that metadata reveals a ton of private info. Furthermore, we’ve even pointed out that the NSA regularly uses “just metadata” to pick targets for drone assassinations. As one person called it: “death by unreliable metadata.”

So we know that the US kills people based on metadata, but given how hard the NSA and its defenders have sought to play down the collection of metadata, it’s somewhat amazing to find out that the always on-message former director of both the NSA and CIA, Michael Hayden, flat out admitted that “we kill people based on metadata.” According to David Cole:

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.”

You can see Hayden make that statement at the 18 minute mark of this video — though he immediately tries to qualify the statement by saying we don’t kill people based on this metadata. Of course, what he leaves out is that the DOJ believes that the federal government has the legal authority to kill Americans based on this metadata. So that kind of matters:

It’s a bit scary to watch Hayden’s awkward snarky smile after making this statement.

Separately, if you rewind the video to the 15 minute mark, David Cole does a great job laying out why metadata is so powerful, though even he didn’t go so far as to highlight “death by metadata.”

As stated above, we knew that the CIA kills based on metadata — but it’s still fairly amazing that Hayden was willing to admit this. Either way, the next time you hear anyone invoking the “it’s just metadata” or saying “but it’s not the actual content” perhaps point out to them this simple statement: the former head of the NSA and CIA, and one of the biggest defenders of the metadata collection program (some of which began under his watch) has admitted: “we kill people based on metadata.”

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Comments on “Michael Hayden Gleefully Admits: We Kill People Based On Metadata”

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57 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

Suddenly the “it’s just metadata” trope doesn’t sound so harmless after all, no? This information alone is open to all sorts of interpretations that can lead to you getting shot by mistake. If this doesn’t scare the shit out of you then you have a problem.

The standard now is to hide whatever you can from your data because there’s no way to know if it’s flagging you. So you often stop by your grandma in the evening but there’s a drug point in the vicinity? Too bad for you. Don’t expect law enforcement to do proper investigation and clear it up. Be condemned (or shot!) based solely on your metadata.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“This information alone is open to all sorts of interpretations that can lead to you getting shot by mistake. If this doesn’t scare the shit out of you then you have a problem.”

Or not by “mistake” at all. Maybe for being on hit list of political enemies based on metadata (do you spend a lot of time reading Techdirt?). That should really scare the sh*t out of you.

Excuse me now, time to go. I’ve been in one place too long. Gotta stay ahead of the drones.

Socrates says:

Re: The ruler of the free world

The Investor-State ruler reign supreme

by rules:

FATCA rule all banks

The Investor-State Dispute Settlement replaces the obsolete authority by elected representatives. The ISDS courts overrule them all.

Citizens of the most powerful European NATO member is threatened with convictions for talking about the worst attack on European sovereignty in decades.

and by death:

Drone killings spreads ever more; to quash opposition and disloyalty .

Sarcastic press release:

The bipartisan program to reach out and end disputes with people all over the world, have unwavering support from someone secretly interpreting secret rules. Empowering the President of the Investor-State to end critics.

Oure beloved leader, the ruler of the free world, speaks to us:
The New American Century is the goal of the planet. And I’m the gaoler. It is imperative, that every consumer in every corner of the world, from the penniless lone child to leaders of european nations, is submissive. To be assimilated, be meek. That is your responsibility.

Some have been unwilling to accept that being free is to be ruled by me. I see their most private moments; I am the power from above. I reach out to the most desolate places of the world and help people out of their misery. I impact everything from lone bicyclists to weddings.

My power seeps into European and Asian nations. They deem me more important than their constituency. I am part of the bipartisan ring of power; I will in TAFTA bind them. Be meek, be assimilated.

Your address is just metadata and the US is part of the world . Let it happen, be meek. I promised to bring the military home. The drones have served us well; it is time to bring the drones home.

Anonymous Coward says:

Look at the good news!

Depending upon which side of the isle you walk one of the 2 cases below might be right up your alley. If you are like me and neither case fits your personality, then did you vote for either of the 2 corrupt parties?

Case #1 (Democrat President)

Random American citizen receives a phone call asking for “Habib Bombjacket” random citizen responds that they must have the wrong phone number. This American Citizen is now an interest in NSA. A month later subject visits a Tea-Party website. Another month later he is scheduled to visit a mid eastern state.

Government has on record a connection to an Islamic terrorist and logged into a the Terrorist organization known as the Tea Party and is now taking a trip to the mid east. Drone strike issued as soon as citizen leaves states.

Case #2. (Republican President)
Random American citizen receives a phone call asking for “Habib Bombjacket” random citizen responds that they must have the wrong phone number. This American Citizen is now an interest in NSA. A month later subject visits a MoveOn dot org website. Another month later he is scheduled to visit a mid eastern state.

Government has on record a connection to an Islamic terrorist and logged into a the Terrorist organization known as the MoveOn Party and is now taking a trip to the mid east. Drone strike issued as soon as citizen leaves states.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Look at the good news!

spel czech: aisle

don’t disagree, but you’re not paying attention:
much like how the NSA can’t spy on Americans (stop laughing!), and get -say- germany to do it for us (and vice versa); NOW, instead of unka sam sending out OUR drones to meta-splat some wayward citizen, they simply get germany to send in THEIR drones and meta-splat us…
see, all perfectly legal and shit…
nothing to worry about, silly…
ALL PERFECTLY LEGAL…
just like hitler was…

Anonymous Coward says:

Nice headline…Snip a comment completely out of context, and then use it in a deliberately deceptive way to stir up the troops who are unaware what you are doing. You have Mr. Cole blathering along about “OMG…look at all the stuff you can do from this”, disingenuously ignoring, of course, that much more needs to be done to the raw data in order to convert it to useful intelligence that may or may not ultimately prove helpful. His position is spoken like a true utopian academic. General Hayden makes a very general comment for effect on the audience, and then proceeds to explain how the system actually works and attempts to explain why it is not at all what the media is trying to have people believe is the case.

What “could” perhaps be done does not at all mean that it actually is being done as a necessary part of an ongoing program. Trying to equate “could” with “are doing” is deceptive and twists the debate in a direction virtually ensuring that public understanding devolves into fiction versus fact.

Merely out of curiosity, when was the last time that anyone here ever had any federal agent show up at your door demanding to know why your metadata reveals your terrorist leanings and when/where are you planning on detonating your next car bomb?

Does this mean I like massive amounts of data collection which oftentimes are stabs in the dark that at some future date may yield useful intelligence information? Of course not. But, before expressing righteous indignation about the NSA as an organization and the programs it implements, perhaps it would be useful to consider that much of the actionable intelligence it is trying to identify resides in lines of communications that are employed by all. That intelligence information resides as noise in a sea of communication streams. The goal is, of course, to filter out the noise so that attention and resources can be brought to bear in a targeted fashion. Problem is, you have to find the targets in the first place…and that is no easy feat. If it was it is doubtful these programs would raise so much as an eyebrow.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Merely out of curiosity, when was the last time that anyone here ever had any federal agent show up at your door demanding to know why your metadata reveals your terrorist leanings and when/where are you planning on detonating your next car bomb?

The true sign of someone not worth taking seriously: they claim that if these violations of privacy don’t impact you directly, you have no right to complain.

Have you no understanding of how these things work?

mcinsand (profile) says:

Re: Re: As Mike Rogers put it

Mike, Mike, Mike,

>>they claim that if these violations of privacy don’t
>>impact you directly, you have no right to complain.

As Mike Rogers put it last year:

“you can’t have your privacy violated if you don’t know your privacy is violated, right?”

Thus, we have several corollaries, with two among them:

1) You can’t claim that metadata has revealed anything significant about your life until the knock comes at your door.

2) You can’t claim to have been killed by a drone based on metadata until you hear the approaching buzz.

Of course, that second one is more complicated, since there is the issue of whether or not you know that the metadata was involved. If you do not know of the significance, then can your ghost complain that you were killed based on questionable data? If you do know the significance, then can your ghost at least raise the flag of 4th-Amendment-busting privacy violations (assuming no-one got a warrant)?

Schr?dinger must be spinning in his grave.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: As Mike Rogers put it

You can’t claim to have been killed by a drone based on metadata until you have actually been killed by such drone. You must then come back to life in order to sue. The fact fact that no one has yet came back to life to file such a suit obviously shows that such killings never happen.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

What an incredibly asinine response. It is a fair question to try and determine if what can be done theoretically is in fact actually being done. For one who says that policy should be fact based, well then perhaps facts should be developed here more fully (and accurately) before making the-sky-is-falling predictions/declarations.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What an incredibly asinine response. It is a fair question to try and determine if what can be done theoretically is in fact actually being done. For one who says that policy should be fact based, well then perhaps facts should be developed here more fully (and accurately) before making the-sky-is-falling predictions/declarations.

Really? You don’t see the problem with:

(1) What are people worried about? It’s just metadata!
and
(2) We kill people with metadata!

Even if they’re not killing people with this metadata, Hayden is confirming that metadata is quite revealing.

The only thing “asinine” in this conversation is you arguing that unless you’re being targeted based on metadata, you have no right to complain about it.

Either way, if this is no big deal, would you please publish all of your phone call and email metadata for the past month? I won’t misuse it. Promise.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Merely out of curiosity, when was the last time that anyone here ever had any federal agent show up at your door demanding to know why your metadata reveals your terrorist leanings and when/where are you planning on detonating your next car bomb?

I don’t think that’s how they work – from what Hayden is saying it seems that the first you whould know of it would be a loud bang when they try to take you out with a drone.

Of course it is fairly unlikely that some ordinary American or European, living in their home country, would be impacted directly like this – they would probably send a SWAT team round like the did to Dotcom – but you know the old saying – “first they came for the … but I wasn’t a … “

If A Tree Falls in the Wood Will the NSA Hellfire says:

Re: Re:

Has a government agent shown up at my door?

No.

But the day will come when the government takes an interest in me. Perhaps I will be nabbed speeding. Or for driving too carefully. Or maybe my 1040 will be selected for additional scrutiny. Or my TSA groper does not like the way I glare at him.

On that day, Our Royal Masters have at their command everything I have said, done, yea even thought for the past 13 years.

Should I be concerned about this?

Concern does not begin to capture my feelings at this state of utter and complete helplessness.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“What “could” perhaps be done does not at all mean that it actually is being done as a necessary part of an ongoing program.”

I think you misunderstood the entire point of the article. It’s saying that metadata is very invasive, and the government implicitly acknowledges that when they say things like they determine targets based on it. The “could” be done is the point.

“Merely out of curiosity, when was the last time that anyone here ever had any federal agent show up at your door demanding to know why your metadata reveals your terrorist leanings”

This is 100% beside the point, and doesn’t address the objection to and danger of the collection program. Even so, if you were to be targeted by metadata, they would never tell you that’s what happened, so your question is pointless.

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What “could” perhaps be done does not at all mean that it actually is being done

Doesn’t matter. What IS being done is a massive violation of privacy. And with that, a massive violation of the constitution of the USA.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Guess what, in contrast to other parts of the constitution, it does not even say citizen, but people. The fourth amendment applies to everyone on the planet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on May 12th, 2014 @ 6:13am

“What “could” perhaps be done does not at all mean that it actually is being done as a necessary part of an ongoing program.”

It is the nature of government that anything that can be done will be done eventually. Particularly if it can help secure power. And killing people? That’s all kind of power.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Notice that they are finally stating what has already been out and the terrorists know of. I suspect it is no longer beneficial to use the metadata alone and this is why they are attempting to be straight forward for the first time I can remember during any public announcements.

For our goofball Doubting Thomas, maybe you’ve read a few of the newspaper clips of drones firing on wedding parties and funerals. The terrorists are not dummies. They have themselves pieced together that their cell phones are the real target, more specifically the SIM chip. There have been reports that they are gathering up the SIM chips, putting them in a bag, shaking them up to mix them and then randomly giving them out. Some of those phones go to family members, some to supporters but not the actual terrorists. The CIA has no way of telling who got what as far as the SIM chip goes and that has accounted for these off target missiles. So yeah, it’s not hypothetical, it’s being used.

My only question remaining is how long till the citizens of this country are doing the same to lower government spying and to scramble data collection?

You don’t actually have to be the terrorist, all you have to do is get the unwanted attention of the government or some political powerful person who decides you are a problem. With 10 to 13 years of back data and looking for some reason to hassle you, it would be plumb easy to make up a reason that sounds good, whether it has no basis in fact or not.

Can you tell me exactly what you ate off your plate for supper, May 27th 1999? What you had for the meal then? Where it was you ate it, and did you or did you not go to the grocery store that day for some ingredient you didn’t have (of course you might have saw your contact that day too). They have the records, is your memory that great?

Groaker (profile) says:

Metadata is worse than junk science in the administration of justice

The utilization of statistical evidence is the nirvana of the bureaucrat. By its very nature, there can always be found some statistical test to determine that someone is an outlier by some measure. That some hyperplane can be drawn between a person, terrorists groups, and the non-terrorist population. One such laughable sociological statistical test was developed shortly 9/11. A large supermarket chain voluntarily provided loyalty program purchasing data to one of the alphabet services. People who purchased frozen pizzas with a credit card, and went through the fast lanes of a supermarket were viable suspects for terrorism.

Metadata may be useful for determining the behavior of masses of people, and it may not. Two recent meta-studies of medical papers found that more than half were “wrong.” Which then were right — the medical studies or the meta-studies? That is of course the progress of science. Through repeated controlled studies, scientists discover what variables are significant and which are not. Justice on the other hand is a totally uncontrolled study, not repeatable, and applicable to only one particular set of circumstance.

That does not even consider the potential for error. Death certificate data is generally considered one of the best sources of metadata. The state I lived in spent two years editing and checking on the quality of such data before giving it out to the counties. In looking over one such data set, I found a certificate of a man reputed to have died of uterine cancer. Unless he was a chimera, this was not very likely. Investigation proved that the man was indeed not a chimera, and did not in fact die of uterine cancer.

Other datasets were far worse, even when gathered by committed people. Early in the HIV epidemic, we found an astounding 5400% error rate in the transcription of having a risk factor/ not having a risk factor between interview logs and analysis request slips.

This current abuse of statistics is naught but an excuse for murder. One that can always be manipulated to exist, at least statistically. It finds not fact but a fantasy numeric figure as justification. A perfect cover for sociopaths who have found a way to commit homicide without risk to themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Metadata is worse than junk science in the administration of justice

Forget error rates, it distracts from the real problem. Statistics can be used to justify anything!

Just depends on ‘how’ you decide to sample the data.

The government can already metadata anyone into a terrorist if they really wanted too… because when is anyone going to challenge them if they made up the evidence? How about the people they call crazy wackos? At this point I would not even trust video they show to backup their claims because I have no way to know how doctored it is!

Just clipping information OUT of the video without inserting or modifying some of it is enough to be a world of difference.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

“Metadata doesn’t reveal anything”
“We use metadata to select targets for drone strikes”
So you’re just killing people at random. Is it OK if I come into your office and kill people at random there, as long as it’s in the name of fighting the terrorism of the U.S. government who can do this to us?

BeeAitch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Metadata doesn’t reveal anything”

“We use metadata to select targets for drone strikes”

I was wondering if someone was going to catch this.

All along we the people have been told that metadata doesn’t reveal enough about any specific person for the collection of said data to be a privacy concern.

Now we are told that metadata reveals enough about a specific person for them to be killed remotely.

The cognitive dissonance astounds me.

Groaker (profile) says:

I do believe that I clearly stated that anyone could be made an outlier (terrorists) by finding some discriminant test that would segregate them with the terrorists, and separate from the general population. I then went on to give an example of such a test based on a supermarket purchase.

Of course, you are quite right about privacy. And that is quite valuable, even if not concerning a secret. For instance, what I do in the bathroom is not a secret, but it is damn well private. When it concerns things an average person holds secret, then the potential for harm increases drastically.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

We always need an enemy

There’s a game that use to be popular called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. The basic concept is that you can take any Hollywood actor or actress and connect them to Kevin Bacon with six steps or less.

That game is based on the idea of “Six Degrees of Separation” that states that any one person in the world is six or less steps away from any other person in the world. That means that any one of you can be connected to each and every terrorist in the world, we just need the metadata for it.

So far the US government seems to be fine at stopping at 3 or 4 degrees of separation. What happens when they get desperate enough for an enemy that they reach 6?

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