Using E-Mail Data to Connect the Dots of Your Life (or, What the N.S.A. Knows About You)

Now that the whistle has been blown and everyone’s heard that the National Security Agency is monitoring our online activity, you’re probably wondering what, specifically, the government knows about you. Thanks to M.I.T.’s Media Laboratory, anyone with a Gmail account can now find out. 

The thing is, they’re not monitoring the data (content) in your emails, but they do have access to the metadata (to, from, time sent). It’s the equivalent of somebody reading the outside of a snail mail envelope and being able to remember the information on every envelope you’ve ever sent or received without actually opening any of them.

Technically, this is all legal (according to rules written in 1789 that couldn’t possibly have anticipated the technology of today). Does it make you uncomfortable? The answer may depend on whether you’re doing something you don’t want others to know about, which is less and less common in this age of oversharing.

The two articles below, both from the New York Times, describe the situation and the tool M.I.T. has created to connect your own dots. It’s interesting (though not surprising) to see the entirety of your Gmail communications in a single snapshot, plus a top 15 list of your most emailed contacts since the beginning of your Gmail life. Try it out (it’s easy to retract the permissions afterward), and decide for yourself if this is grounds for protest or a sign of the times.

Using E-Mail Data to Connect the Dots of Your Life


The Obama administration for over two years allowed the National Security Agency to collect enormous amounts of metadata on e-mail usage by Americans, according to one of the latest leaks of government documents by the now-famous whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden.

But what is e-mail metadata anyway? It’s information about the people you’re sending e-mails to and receiving e-mails from, and the times that the messages were sent — as opposed to the contents of the messages. It’s the digital equivalent of a postal service worker looking at your mail envelope instead of opening it up and reading what’s inside.

That sounds harmless, but it turns out your e-mail metadata can be used to connect the dots of your life story. I learned this from participating in Immersion, a project by M.I.T.’s Media Laboratory, earlier reported by my colleague Juliet Lapidos. Immersion is a tool that mines your e-mail metadata and automatically stitches it all together into an interactive graphic. The result is a creepy spider web showing all the people you’ve corresponded with, how they know each other, and who your closest friends and professional partners are.

After entering my Google mail credentials, Immersion took five minutes to stitch together metadata from e-mails going back eight years. A quick glimpse at my results gives an accurate description of my life.

In an Immersion chart, each person is represented by dots. The more you’ve e-mailed with the person, the bigger the dot gets. In my results, the biggest dot was my boss at my last job; the second biggest was my long-term former girlfriend. The medium-size ones were some of my closest friends. Lines that connected some dots showed friends of mine who knew each other.

One can imagine that mining the metadata of a person suspected of a crime is an effective tool to track down his accomplices. But considering how easily and quickly this can be done, it’s not hard to assume that the government collects these records on just about everyone. That seems to be the point that Immersion is trying to make.

After being thoroughly disturbed, I removed Immersion’s permission to access my account and asked the project to delete my metadata. But it left me with the feeling that more about me is already known than I’d like, and it’s already too late.

What the N.S.A. Knows About You


It’s difficult to have an informed opinion about the National Security Agency’s collection of “metadata” without understanding what “metadata” is, not that that’s stopped anyone. The name suggests that it’s data about data, and the Obama administration has gone to some lengths to reassure Americans that “metadata” is definitely not “content,” which unlike your “metadata” presumably enjoys Fourth Amendment protections. But Glenn Greenwald, among others, has said that’s a distinction without a difference: “In reality, it is hard to distinguish email metadata from email content.”

For anyone still in the dark — pretty much everyone? — there’s a simple way to figure out what the N.S.A. can glean from your email: An online program from the MIT Media Lab called “Immersion.”

The Boston Globe wrote about it last week:

“[Immersion] asks users for their Gmail address and password; it then scans every e-mail in their accounts and scrapes the metadata to create a portrait of their personal network. With the circles and lines of a network diagram, it highlights the 100 people with whom you’ve communicated most, and shows how closely they’re connected to you and how thickly interconnected with one another in your mailbox.”

Yes, it only works with Gmail and you have to reveal your password. But as The Boston Globe notes, “Unlike Google, or the NSA, the project also offers an instant deletion option: Remove your name, and it erases your metadata.”

Sign up here:

If you send yourself emails from your work or school or other personal accounts, Immersion will be able to assemble a list of your email aliases. That means anyone looking at your metadata could figure out where you’ve worked and where you attended school. (e.g. that I used to work at Slate, because I had a Slate email account.)

The program can figure out how many emails you’ve sent, to how many people, and who you’ve emailed the most in the past month, year or overall. It knows when you first emailed a given contact, and the last time you emailed him. It can guess which of your contacts know each other, and even how you got to know certain people. (e.g. it gathered that my husband introduced me to his mother and brother and college friends.)

Here’s a screenshot of my network, scrubbed of identifying information. The largest circle represents my husband: My “top collaborator.”

About Marty Wetherall