Why the PATRIOT Act Went After Your Metadata and Why You Should Too

All of us should pay attention to the bits hidden in our files.

Over the last few days, the NSA failed to do what the NSA had been doing for some time, collecting your metadata. The reason, as you likely know, is that the PATRIOT Act ran out of legislative juice. The sunset provisions built into the hastily written 363-page document kicked in on June 1, forcing senators to yell about it for a while before making some tweaks and kicking it back out the door. But the temporary cessation of the bloody data harvest Edward Snowden gave the Upton Sinclair treatment was enough to give a lot of people pause. The twin uncertainties left standing all these years later are whether or not the metadata being hoovered up represented meaningful information and what our individual contributions to that dark pool actually meant.

In other words: Without actually listening, how much can anyone know?

The closest our politicians have come to answering that question is offering a definitive but incoherent “Yes.” We have to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the call and response don’t match up for a sociologically and scientifically provable reason. We are not who we think we are.

Numerous studies have made it clear over numerous years that humans are absolute garbage at predicting their own behavior and even worse at understanding it. Because our self perception is governed by a fundamental untruth, that we have just the one self, our answers are all variations on an inaccurate theme. As part of a 2008 study, Dr. Jordi Quoidbach, a psychological scientist at the University of Liege, asked a group of Belgians how they would feel if Obama was elected President. They all loved Obama and said, basically, that they would throw their waffles and Tintin comics into the air if he won. When he did win, the happy people were happy and the grouchy people were grouchy. What the Belgians didn’t understand was that Obama couldn’t change the thing most central to their lives: their brains.

Want to know if someone is going to wear sunscreen? Tap into their medial prefrontal cortex. You could just ask them, but you’d be wasting your damn time.

It turns out that the only practical way to know what a person not hooked up to an EEG is about to do is to know what they’re doing right now. If that sounds borderline tautological, so be it. Real data is the only data that passes muster - and metadata is real data. A fascinating 2014 study showed that phone metadata could help researchers accurately predict depressive and manic episodes in bipolar patients over ninety percent of the time. That goes past guesswork and well past self-reportage.

As it turns out, dehumanizing people is a great way to tap into their humanity.

Which is why the NSA has done us all something of a favor by pointing out a wonderful self-diagnostic tool. Not to be outdone, MIT created a way to do it: The Immersion Project, which debuted a few years back, maps your email behavior to display, in essence, your social positioning. It works with Gmail and it works well. It shows you to you to whatever extent you are filtered through your email and you exist as a cohesive being at all.

Armed with this information, you could do what the NSA did — averaged across cases that rounds to zero — or you could start actively considering the gap between your behavior and your self-perception. Some part of you doesn’t work and that part of you probably hasn’t really ever worked. Metadata can help you start looking for this internal terrorist, following your behavior patterns back to the cave where the flaw in your psyche warms it’s hands by a blood vessel, masterminding fresh ways to undermine your ego. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to get your phone data, but the NSA’s PRISM program was also dismantled so that feels, if nothing else, pleasingly parallel.

Spend a little time with your metadata and you’ll realize that this is intimate stuff and the PATRIOT Act has serious scope. Still, you’re not the NSA because the NSA never cared about you and you do car about yourself, which is reason enough to think about self preservation instead of national security.