Play With An MIT Tool That Visualizes How The NSA Can Map Your Relationships

by Gregory Ferenstein

July 8, 2013

from an original article on

The CrunchGov Essential is a scannable roundup of technology's influence on the day's big issues. Below a feature post, we present the most thoughtful, outrageous, and inspiring stories told through the web's best content. Sign up for the morning newsletter here.

DIY spin

The brainiacs at MIT created a cool visualization program to map how the National Security Agency can understand your relationships based on who you contact via email and how often. While we still don't know whether the NSA is collecting the content of phone calls and Internet activity, we know from court documents and Senate testimony that the government broadly mines so-called “meta-data” about whom users interact with.

Readers can link their Gmail accounts to MIT's “Immersion” tool here. There are two immediate pieces of information that a stranger could learn from a map of email relationships:

1. The NSA could identify teams and its leaders. In my map, TechCrunch editors Eric Eldon and Alexia Tsotsis have a giant presence, surrounded with an interconnected web of our team.

2. Big nodes without any linkages reveal relationships that are best kept hidden. I have some sources that I only email directly. The fact that they never interact with anyone else is suspicious. These nodes are a blackmail goldmine: a mistress, a doctor, or a drug dealer.

There has been lots of ink spilled over why meta-data is potentially more invasive than the content of emails, and this new tool drives the point home in a very personal way.

The Essential — 4 Items — IRS Publishes SSNs, Snowden Says Germany Spying, Snowden Was Right To Flee, News Stations Make Twitter Mistakes, Too

1. IRS Whoopsi [Gizmodo]

████████ ███ █████ ████████ ███████████ ████ ██████ 4th Amendment █████████ ███ ███ █ ███████ ████████ LOL

FISA Court (@FISA_Court) July 08, 2013

–The IRS accidently published tens of thousands of Social Security numbers. They have since been removed.

–”It seems that when the IRS went to upload a bunch of records on the nonprofit industry, some unfortunate soul simply forgot to redact the thousands of identifying numbers. “

2. Germany's Hypocrisy [The Guardian]

–Despite Germany's freakout over NSA psying, whistleblower Edward Snowden claims that Germany is spying on citizens, too.

–“They are in bed with the Germans, just like with most other Western states,” he told Germany's Der Spiegel.

3. Ellsberg: Snowden Was Right To Flee [Washington Post]

–Pentagon Paper's whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg penned an OpEd in the Washington Post arguing that Snowden was right to flee the country.

– “But Snowden's contribution to the noble cause of restoring the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments to the Constitution is in his documents. It depends in no way on his reputation or estimates of his character or motives — still less, on his presence in a courtroom arguing the current charges, or his living the rest of his life in prison.”

4. Asiana Flight 214 Didn't Flip

When news reports starting pouring in about Asiana Flight 214′s crash landing into SFO, local station KTVU reported that the plan had flipped over, which was kind of ridiculous given other reports. They issued this explanation via Twitter.

@pfreet This is what a witness told us. It could've been flipped back over

  (@KTVU) July 06, 2013