Snowden’s revelations have spawned projects such as Immersion and Lightbeam that help you understand tracking, metadata
Over the past five months, whistleblower Edward Snowden’s exposés have shed damning light on the many facets of the U.S. National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance, spanning across countries and continents. The unremitting spotlight on the long-run government snooping programme has triggered wide global discourse on privacy, a subject that was not too long ago seen as a niche pursuit of the paranoid few.
Indeed, the documents leaked by the former NSA contractor has brought about a tectonic shift in how we view technologies and services that we’d come to take for granted. Privacy is no more a buzzword confined to the little non-descript box you tick when you agree to the non-committal Terms of Service statements published by those offering various Web services. Even metadata — a term that refers to the coordinates of your communication and not the content of the conversation itself — is no longer a term that belonged to the domain of techies; this despite the popular defence of surveillance being that accessing metadata does not really amount to snooping into conversations. Recent revelations have of course taken this a step further with exposés revealing that the programme nosed around into much more than metadata, an expose that has had signification implications on international diplomacy.
Globally, there is renewed curiosity around what metadata entails and what parts of your regular interactions on the Web are trackable. This curiosity has, in recent months, spawned a range of products that offer a ringside view into your metadata by mapping it into simple graphs. While there isn’t much you can do with your metadata really, what it does is show you just how revealing your metadata — yes, the very same maps that are being used by governments to figure out who and what your virtual lives are about — can be. They’re immensely educative, because it shows that simple information on say what groups of people you interact with, or what sites your frequent or how often you visit a cluster of sites can say a lot about you as a virtual being. These present a strong riposte to those who argue that as long as the snooping/surveillance is restricted to metadata — that is, the coordinates of your messages and not the message itself — the tracking is harmless.
MIT’s Project Immersion
Take for instance, Immersion, a project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab that helps visualise the metadata that can be out extracted out of just your email interactions. To test the project, one needs to just log in with your Gmail/Yahoo address. The system goes through your email and returns to what is a line-circle graph of your metadata. Look at the graph and what you’ll see is a pretty accurate representation of who you’re connected to (and how much) and what are the networks that are prevalent among these connections. So, you’re office network forms a large circle, possibly disconnected or weakly connected to the circle that represents your college friends, and an entirely distant and far removed connection with a distant relative you email once a year.
The message is as simple as it is revealing: metadata isn’t all that obscure and abstract as the pro-surveillance camp will have you believe. They don’t really need to access the content of your emails to figure out who and what your interactions are about.
Another tool that allows you to be your own ‘Big Brother’ is Mozilla’s Lightbeam, previously called the Collusion Tool in its experimental phase. Lightbeam is a Firefox add-on that does what Immersion does, only it maps the sites you visit. Once you download the add-on, it presents a line-circle graph of how you interact with the Web. It uses your browser data to present a real-time visualisation of all the tracking cookies that are being piled on to your browser as you move around the World Wide Web. It also shows you all the third-party websites that the website you are visiting is connecting to under the hood, even as the content you request is served up.
Developed as an independent project by Mozilla engineer Atul Varma, the project is an excellent visual way of educating internet users on just how advertisers (and third-party sites) have you on their radar. Each circle represents the site you visit, and lines emanating from them represent the tracking cookies that have been dumped on to your browser. The lines, the visual map of this reporter’s browser revealed, are thickest around social networking sites and, interestingly, the only circle that remained on the peripheries and did not have any lines emanating from it represented Wikipedia. The idea, Mozilla says, is to educate users on just how the Web works and empower them with information on all that goes on under-the-hood while you casually browse the Internet. These connections are indeed what are used widely to track web users, quite apart from the more official forms of surveillance run by State agencies and governments.
Sharath M.S., a technologist and activist with the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, says post-PRISM there’s certainly an increase in awareness around privacy. "Tools such as Lightbeam help people understand how this works. It also helps one see the commercial patterns behind this whole business of surveillance. The whole discourse of privacy was till a few years ago restricted to the tech activist circles. Those who almost prophetically talked about the dangers of over-dependence on centralised technologies like the cloud were dismissed as paranoid. That has certainly changed," he explains.