4 x 3 1/4”
Metadata, the NSA and Immersion for Gmail
On Friday, Nathan Yau at FlowingData posted about an MIT Media Lab experiment called Immersion, which describes itself as offering ‘a people-centric view of your email life using only your metadata’.
Immersion is a web-app that scrapes metadata from your Gmail account and visualises your relationships with the people you e-mail. You can see who you e-mail most and thanks to an analysis of CC and BCC metadata, make connections between your contacts. So if you sent an e-mail to all your family members, they are all shown as linked; if you organised an office party, the coworkers you sent the invites to are placed in a cluster.
It’s a neat little insight that might throw up the odd surprise as to how you are connected with people, but the timing of its arrival is particularly interesting. Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the USA’s National Security Agency’s PRISM programme showed us that the collection of e-mail metadata was a key surveillance activity:
One 2008 document, signed by the US defense secretary and attorney general, states that the collection and subsequent analysis included “the information appearing on the ‘to,’ ‘from’ or ‘bcc’ lines of a standard email or other electronic communication” from Americans. (Glenn Greenwald, ‘NSA collected US email records in bulk for more than two years under Obama’, The Guardian, 28 June 2013)
Sounds a lot like what Immersion can do! (Except that it does it after you ask it to…)
If you’re using Gmail, plugging yourself into Immersion will quickly show you the kind of basic understanding of your connections with other people an analysis of your metadata can provide. It is probably already enough to seem rather creepy — those clusters of your family members or work colleagues are instantly clear, now imagine you’re a member of a protest group or political organisation being monitored: from e-mails exchanged you’d show up immediately as connected. And if a new member joined, they’d show up within days as part of that corner of your life.
However this is just a first superficial analysis. Glenn Greenwald, points out a policy of ‘contact chaining’:
One function of this internet record collection is what is commonly referred to as “data mining”, and which the NSA calls “contact chaining”. The agency “analyzed networks with two degrees of separation (two hops) from the target”, the report says. In other words, the NSA studied the online records of people who communicated with people who communicated with targeted individuals. (Ibid.)
In the analysis Immersion shows you, your connection with a person X is established by the fact you e-mailed them or they e-mailed you (including via CC etc.):
Once you log in, Immersion will use only the From, To, Cc and Timestamp fields of the emails in the account you are signing in with. It will not access the subject or the body content of any of your emails. →
That’s more or less exactly what the NSA was able to do with harvested metadata (plus they were gathering IP addresses). Let’s say you regularly e-mail a person X and a person Y, but have never e-mailed both in one e-mail, the analysis Immersion can show you (based entirely on the metadata of your account) will not link the two. However, thanks to ‘contact chaining’, a targeted individual’s contacts are immediately also fair game for analysis by the NSA: both X’s and Y’s metadata should also be analysed and pulled into a pooled analysis involving metadata from all three e-mail accounts. So if X and Y have exchanged e-mails, even though you have never contacted them together — and so Immersion shows them as unconnected — it is immediately possible to see that contacts X and Y are in fact related. Indeed, the agency ‘analyzed networks with two degrees of separation from the target’, which means that yet a third layer of data is then added to the analysis of your network.
Obviously this returns a much higher resolution network than that you see in Immersion. If looking through what Immersion shows you seems scarily precise but with the odd blip, it’s safe to say that those blips would rapidly vanish after ‘contact chaining’.
Imagining how that expands to yet more terrifying proportions isn’t difficult. Add further layers of intelligence obtained from other sources and these clusters become more powerful. Add some basic automatic analysis and a software programme could probably quickly guess the nature of a cluster’s relationship to you. Analysis of the domains that e-mail accounts are attached to could reveal a fair bit and automated, cross-referenced searches for the people in a cluster would almost certainly throw up fairly certain guesses at the relationship’s nature. And all of this within minutes.
US Deputy attorney general James Cole testified with regard to the metadata attached to phone calls that
phone records like this, that don’t include any content, are not covered by the fourth amendment because people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in who they called and when they called […] That’s something you show to the phone company. That’s something you show to many, many people within the phone company on a regular basis. (Congressional Hearing on the NSA, 18 June 2013)
This logic has been applied to e-mail metadata: it’s OK, because it is ‘contentless’, the monitoring is not of what is being communicated but who is communicating. However the argument is facetious. A basic analytical tool such as Immersion clearly demonstrates that while an isolated data point (i.e. one e-mail sent from X to Y) is in some vague sense relatively meaningless, the fact that this data basically only exists as a multitude of data points (to date, my account contains 16,911 e-mails for example) renders it content-rich.
Inadvertently — though the creators of Immersion were definitely aware of the problematic abundance of metadata and it’s potential for meaning — Immersion offers you the chance to see exactly how powerful and dangerous this data is. If anyone ever tries to suggest that metadata surveillance doesn’t violate your privacy, Immersion is the perfectly elegant way to give the lie to that argument.
Notebook: Temporal Aesthetics
On 28 February I saw musikFabrik perform a short all Georg Friedrich Haas programme at the Luxembourg Philharmonie — three works for soprano (Sarah Wegener) plus ensemble or piano. This is rather tangentially related: by rights I ought to have written about contemporary vocal writing or the problems of soloist-to-ensemble relationships, but instead what follows are some sketched out thoughts regarding time and the relationship of musical material to time sparked during and after the concert.
I’ve given this the half-baked title of ‘Temporal Aesthetics’, because the core of my thoughts — especially during the first work of the evening, …wie stille brannte das Licht for soprano and 16 instruments — related to the idea that how a composer chooses to use time itself is perhaps the key aesthetic choice available. The ‘use of time’ is not a unidimensional pastime though: our perception of time is so wrapped up with the-things-themselves-that-are-being-in-time that what this means is how a composer decides to sustain and vary their material in time, how repetition, development, stasis, etc. manifest are perhaps more important than the specific material a composer chooses. (Caveat emptor: material and time are not in fact separable as such, but the temporal parameters of a material can be varied, are open to decisions, perhaps that’s a better way of putting it.)
Perhaps this is somewhat similar to saying that the key aesthetic decision to be made is one of form — they’re pretty closely related no doubt — but I think there is nevertheless a difference.
So, why did this Haas work — …wie stille brannte das Licht — prompt these thoughts? I think because it’s a song cycle, which is episodic in construction. The selected texts follow one another, each text has its own associated material/soundworld, and these are linked together into some kind of “logical”, continuous flow. The framing or restriction of the musical material by the semantic flow of text — and, I felt, the idea that this was a song cycle, so we had better move on to the next song right about now — left me occasionally frustrated.
In particular, there is a moment where a wonderful situation emerges in one of the instrumental interludes: a vicious, bright, high-pitched texture of piccolo, strings, metallic percussion and piano is grounded on a low, grinding bass in a way that has a kind of crystalline ferocity. But the tragedy is that this is precisely an interlude. So though this brilliant moment arrives, it is too soon felt to be time to move on. It was here that I really started to think about what can be transmitted aesthetically simply by use of time. We talk often of sound — new sounds, “extended” technique, orchestration, voicing, blending, coherence, Klangtypen usw. — but it is rather different to offer an audience access to a sound situation for 2 seconds, 2 minutes, 20 minutes or an hour. What I really wanted here was to hear that texture achieve absolute obstinacy, its brittle ferocity continuing and continuing until we felt we had encountered a wall — a sound situation that decided it wouldn’t let us past until we had really had to face up to what it was (to give the sound a psychology).
Rather than this, I realised that temporally the Haas is perhaps miniaturised Mahler. There is a great care taken for “sound” as an imaginary momentary, quasi-photographic phenomenon, as there is for colour and harmony. The materials come by in episodes, rub against each other briefly, in safe-sized chunks. One thing is never permitted to have an awkward presence in the memory’s landscape, take up too much room or indeed not enough.
This is not a criticism per se, but I think it reveals some important things about the aesthetic intentions of the composer. And it perhaps reminds us of the weirdness that we should be quicker to recognise in any talk of sound as a disembodied entity. Also, more excitingly, this seems to offer some pretty clear possibilities in terms of how exploit time in different ways.
To fill this out with a few more examples, consider the flute works of Salvatore Sciarrino. They are contemporary classics and popular amongst flautists and composers alike. They are often lauded for their use/discovery of new sounds on the flute, but I would argue what makes them most inimitably Sciarrino — and what unifies them — is the use of these small sound cells in time: the repetition and games with expectation. Another example: Gérard Grisey is not the composer so many respect because of a spectral chord, rather it is the dilation of time, the stretching of material, the formal control which marks certain works out and has them holding listeners’ attentions. Another: Helmut Lachenmann, while undoubtedly a master of combining sounds that are not immediately obvious as music material into an exhilarating landscape, has for me created beautiful music not simply thanks to that facility but mainly because of the gripping way he propels you through pieces like Gran Torso, Ausklang or Concertini. James Tenney’s In a large open space? About time as much as about space. Morton Feldman? Etc.…
Here’s a recent favourite example, Piaras Hoban’s stamme : nahuskild : 존재감, which includes an almost 4-minute-long “stasis”, where the music appears to become stuck, two cymbals grinding forcefully — almost plaintively — unable to move on for a time which at first glance might seem inappropriate and certainly not obvious for a work of this length, but is in fact deeply impactful.
I guess this isn’t to argue one way or the other that way X of using time is better than way Y (thankfully these things are probably not so easily categorised), but rather that they have to be considered fundamentally as part of the composition process. Not just, ‘what sounds am I using’? But what colour of time? What shades of waiting and language of change? All tied up with memory, memorability, speed, and — fundamentally — it’s an aesthetic choice.
 • Update, 17/03/2013, 21:39 • In relationship to the idea of the song cycle, it occurs to me that this genre is tied in some way to various cultural concepts of collecting: selections of texts, musical vignettes, libraries, the Victorian museum, glass cases, oddities, the flea market at St Ouen — all of these submit to an overarching idea, items are grouped, each is half symbol rather than real and its brevity or superficiality is justified by the containing frame. This relates also to the musical treatment of such a situation: if the concept of ‘song cycle’ is itself tied to a notion of framing and collection, it is unsurprising to find materials cornered and restricted.
some of the best things from the last 12 months
Eternity is not much longer than life (René Char)
‘The sensual man conforms thoughts to things; the poet conforms things to his thoughts. The one esteems nature as rooted and fast; the other, as fluid, and impresses his being thereon. To him, the refractory world is ductile and flexible; he invests dust and stones with humanity, and makes them the words of the Reason. The Imagination may be defined to be the use which the Reason makes of the material world.’
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, p. 36
Woody Guthrie’s letter to John Cage.
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”
This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
— Douglas Adams