Politicians like Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) have expressed their approval of the NSA's collection and use of phone records, but German politician Malte Spitz challenged that view in a New York Times op-ed on Saturday, in which he describes a study he conducted in 2010 that shows how collecting metadata may not be as harmless as some believe.
Three years ago, Spitz, a member of Germany's Green party, sued German telecommunication company Deutsche Telekom for phone and internet records that they had collected between August 2009 and January 2010. In May 2010 he received a CD with 35,830 records of his data from that six month period. Shocked that Telekom had tracked his geographical location and phone activity over 35,000 times in a mere six-month span, Spitz decided to work with German newspaper Die Zeit to create an infographic and interactive map illustrating his geographic movements and social media updates, including Twitter activity, blog entries, and websites. By pressing play, viewers are able to virtually follow Spitz through six months of his life, having the ability to stop at interesting points along the way and read about what he did there, landmarks he occupied, and people he spoke with.
Sounds pretty cool, but Zeit's compilation of Spitz's data is much more than simply a cool interactive map; it's a cautionary tale of the dangerous effect that metadata collection — not for one person but for millions — can have on individuals and society. In his op-ed from Saturday, Spitz wrote, "In Germany, whenever the government begins to infringe on individual freedom, society stands up. Given our history, we Germans are not willing to trade in our liberty for potentially better security. Germans have experienced firsthand what happens when the government knows too much about someone."
He then continued, "Three weeks ago, when the news broke about the National Security Agency's collection of metadata in the United States, I knew exactly what it meant. My records revealed the movements of a single individual; now imagine if you had access to millions of similar data sets. You could easily draw maps, tracing communication and movement. You could see which individuals, families or groups were communicating with one another. You could identify any social group and determine its major actors."
Unfortunately, Americans often lose sight of the terrible history and reality that Spitz describes in his column and that he inevitably realized when he received the CD containing over 35,000 of his personal records. The German people have experienced a level of terror from an overpowering government unlike any we've ever experienced, and for Spitz, seeing how much information could be disclosed from a single person in a short period of time felt like a deja vu of sorts back to an era that no one hopes to relive.
So before we dismiss the government's collection of metadata as no big deal, let's rethink the consequences, as Spitz challenges us to do. Most of all, let us study history and learn from it, and make sure that we never repeat our ancestors' mistakes.