How A Little Metadata Made It Possible To Find FBI Director James Comey's Secret Twitter Account

from the we-kill-based-on-metadata dept

For a few years now, our intelligence overseers have been insisting that we shouldn't be too concerned about surveillance programs that collect "just metadata" because that doesn't really reveal too much. But, of course, we've shown how "just metadata" can ruin a career diplomat's life, and former NSA/CIA boss Michael Hayden has admitted that the US kills people based on metadata.

Either way, I find it fascinating that reporter Ashley Feinberg needed just a few small bits of innocent metadata from FBI Director James Comey to track down his secret Twitter account. It took her all of four hours or so. Just last night, Comey admitted that he was on Twitter, leading lots of people to go searching for the account since there is no official one. I won't describe all of how Feinberg tracked it down (it involves some pretty excellent sleuthing and is worth reading) but suffice it to say, it's metadata that gives Comey away. The account, @projectexile7, was then almost certainly confirmed as Comey's based on metadata about who was following it, who it was following, and what it liked:

But how to be sure? There is only one person currently following the account: Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare. Wittes is no Twitter neophyte. He is an active user with more than 25,000 followers, and he only follows 1,178 accounts—meaning he is not a subscriber to the “followback” philosophy. If he is following a random egg—and is the only account following it—there is probably a reason.

That reason could be the fact that, as Wittes wrote here, he is a personal friend of James Comey. (We’ve reached out to Wittes for comment but have yet to hear back.)

Project Exile happens to be a federal program that James Comey helped develop when he was a U.S. attorney living in Richmond. And then, of course, there are the follows.

ProjectExile7 follows 27 other accounts, the majority of which are either reporters, news outlets, or official government and law enforcement accounts. The New York Times' Adam Goldman and David Sanger and the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima and David Ignatius, all of whom have been aggressively covering the FBI investigation into Trump’s contacts with Russian agents, made the list, as did Wittes and former Bush Administration colleague Jack Goldsmith. Donald Trump is on there, too, but @projectexile7 seems to have begun following him relatively recently (its first follow was @nytimes).

There are two outliers: William & Mary News (where Comey attended undergrad) and our colleagues at The Onion (everyone deserves to have fun)

And, yes, I do find it hilarious that Ben Wittes — among the loudest cheerleaders for programs that scoop up metadata — is part of the reason the account was recognized as Comey's.

Go read the full article by Feinberg. Of course, I doubt it will change Comey's views on "just metadata", but it is yet another representation of how powerful a little bit of such data can be in tracking someone down.


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  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 7:03am

    But it's "only" metadata

    Google for "Paul Revere metadata" to find multiple descriptions of how Paul Revere could have been caught if the British collected metadata.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 7:03am

    If metadata wasn't useful they would not be collecting it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:21am

      Re:

      Well, I wouldn't go that far; lots of things get done with government money that aren't useful.

      But the argument they were making for metadata was that it didn't violate anyone's privacy, and only provided useful information/warnings in aggregate; this is something that has never rung true for data privacy analysts.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 7:11am

    Can we please build some metadata network that links Comey to some meth lab or some terrorist cell? This would help drive the 'just metadata' point home. I'm sure you could link him to something obscure if you torture the metadata enough.

    And maybe yank any credibility some people may be giving to the backdooring thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 11:08am

      Re:

      What I am interested in seeing would be a crowd funded push to buy the "metadata" from a Washington ISP. Then let people dig through and see what they find. The ISP couldn't sell a single persons internet data, but they could sell the "metadata" of an area unless I misunderstand something.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 7:37am

    An apple is not an orange

    Data storage admins will tell you what meta data is. It's not someone's phone number or ip address. Those are data. Some damn marketing person decided to use the word to describe something it isn't to get away with something they shouldn't. As usual.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 8:35am

      Re: An apple is not an orange

      What!?!! Are you saying my birthdate, address, phone and ssn are not meta data?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 8:54am

      Re: An apple is not an orange

      Actually the definition of "metadata" is very ill-defined in many jurisdictions and contexts, so theoretically, those data would be percieved as such by term.expand.infinit proponents.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, 31 Mar 2017 @ 7:44am

    Job application

    And that my friends is how you can apply for the NSA or CIA. Authorize the strike.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 7:56am

    Someone infringed upon James Comey? Oh, boy. My_Name_Here's not going to like this at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 31 Mar 2017 @ 8:29am

    Oh come on.

    I doubt it will change Comey's views on "just metadata"

    Look, the NSA wouldn't be gungho on collecting metadata if it didn't form the most processible information source for mass observation they have available.

    Content is a lot harder to analyze and a lot more susceptible to obfuscation.

    Does Google read through recommendations to give relevant search results? No. Their pagerank algorithm processes metadata, links, basically exclusively. And they basically obliterated all other search companies.

    Now the NSA siphons off all the internet traffic it can and boils it down to metadata to generate its scores.

    They are processing the same kind of data Google processes and turn it into lists of whose liberties and rights to tamper with. They are running computing centers the size of Google and processing the same thing:

    Metadata.

    They are spending billions on that, and have been doing so for decades on end.

    "Just metadata" in the context of governmental data collection and processing is as harmless to personal liberties and privacies as "just an iceberg" was to the Titanic.

    And who would know better than Comey? Metadata is the elephant in the room, and "just Metadata" Comey is hiding it by putting it on a pedestal with a plaque "Just an elephant". So people think of it like a curiosity instead a live beast that is likely to gore and trample them all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 9:00am

    so much for the 'but it's only meta data! we cant get any info about you from that!'
    everyone knew it was a bullshit statement all those months ago, now it's been proven, what excuse is gonna come now for the lies, especially from Trump? never come across anyone so full of themselves (and crap!) in my life!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 9:19am

    Now if we could just figure out how to put Comey, and all of the rest of them, in prison with metadata too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 9:45am

      Re:

      You're dreaming. They can't put them in prison even with a 6700 page report full of detailed EVIDENCE of breaking national and international law. If they can't put anyone away with that, "mere" meta-data is going to do exactly jack and squat, and I'm not sure about the jack.

      Disclaimer: the above only applies to people in power (be it politician or financial). Peons are covered by an entirely different standard.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        sigalrm (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:37am

        Re: Re:

        That's because 6700 pages is way to long.

        If you can't describe it with a sound bite, a tweet, or a meme, you've just exceeded the maximum attention span of anyone in a position to make a difference.

        The attention span _can_ be increased in select cases, but it requires large volumes of off-books compensation.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:06am

      Re:

      It ain't a crime when the big people be doing it to the little people.

      Government officials don't go to prison if they commit crimes falling in the general area of their job description against ordinary citizens. Never, ever. Not in the U.S.A.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 10:34am

    Obey me!

    Do as I say, not as I do peasants!

    Now get back to work browsing Facebook, Twitter, and Google. I need more metadata to feed my next company as an "advisor".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    D.C. Pathogen (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 12:18pm

    For Sale.....

    How long before a hacker or an disgruntled NSA employee makes the 'metadata' available on the dark web?

    How long before the Advertising lobbyists get a law passed requiring the government to share collected 'metadata' for a fat campaign contribution?

    Subscribe to everything, then you can say - 'O, i just subscribe to everything'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Mar 2017 @ 12:48pm

    Cue the FBI calling for laws preventing doxing of federal officials while simultaneously expanding surveillance powers on everyone else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 31 Mar 2017 @ 3:04pm

    Personally, I find it amusing and a little sad that today you can use the word "only" in a serious context when referring to someone following 1,178 online accounts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TomStone (profile), 31 Mar 2017 @ 3:45pm

    Comey's metadata

    And they told me it was irrational to be terrified by clowns?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    William Bixby, 1 Apr 2017 @ 5:24am

    Noah? I only just meta!!

    No doubt, Will Rogers never metadata he didn't like.

    “A fool and his money are soon elected.”

    “I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”

    “If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of Congress?”

    “The short memories of the American voters is what keeps our politicians in office.”

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2017 @ 5:49pm

    So, James Comey has something to hide. He must be a terrorist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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