Your phone’s metadata contains more personal information than you might think

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In response to the recent NSA controversy surrounding consumer privacy, the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the legality of the NSA’s surveillance of phone calling records. The ACLU requested a preliminary injunction that would halt the program indefinitely, until further investigation could be completed.

While some mobile phone users may not feel threatened by the NSA’s widespread surveillance, The Washington Post argues that the metadata associated with a person’s phone records could reveal much more about that person’s life than may instantly seem apparent.

Princeton University professor of computer science Ed Felten argues that many phone numbers themselves reveal incredibly sensitive information about a consumer, even if the “contents” of calls made to those numbers haven’t been tracked or revealed. Hotlines, for one, instantly reveal the nature of the call to the observer, as calls to addiction or suicide prevention hotlines (as examples) tend to be called for a single purpose.

Even if one phone call isn’t enough to reveal sensitive information, a group of phone calls also can be.

“Two people in an intimate relationship may regularly call each other, often late in the evening. If those calls become less frequent or end altogether, metadata will tell us that the relationship has likely ended as well—and it will tell us when a new relationship gets underway,” says Felten. “More generally, someone you speak to once a year is less likely to be a close friend than someone you talk to once a week.”

Even without tracking the contents of every call made, the NSA’s practice of gathering everyone’s phone records is still enough to reveal lots of personal information, argues Felten.

In response, some companies are already going above and beyond to protect their customers’ privacy. Pirate Bay’s Peter Sunde, for instance, is in the process of creating an “NSA-proof” messaging app for iOS, which will offer end-to-end encryption so “only you and your friend can read what you write.”

Overall user privacy has also become more important to mobile consumers, with mobile commerce company MEF discovering only 55 percent of the top free apps on iOS and Android contained access to a privacy policy before the app was downloaded. These policies, says MEF, should be more readily accessible, enabling users to know how their data and information will be used before they ever download an application.