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Info U.S. seeking from Verizon ‘will reveal a great deal about your personal life’

An detail aerial view NSA's Utah DatCenter Bluffdale Utah Thursday June 6 2013. The government is secretly collecting telephone records

An detail aerial view of the NSA's Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah, Thursday, June 6, 2013. The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order, according to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency's need to collect such records, but critics are calling it a huge over-reach. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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Updated: July 8, 2013 6:49AM

So it’s only “metadata.” But it can still tell the government who you are, where you live, who your friends are, where you travel and who you do business with according to telecommunications experts.

The metadata covered under the Verizon court order consists of originating and receiving phone numbers, the time and duration of calls as well as general location data for both land and mobile communications.

A leaked document has revealed that part of the U.S. government’s anti-terrorism efforts involve routine collection of information about every telephone call made through Verizon. Defenders insist its just ‘metadata,’ not actual conversations.

But once the government has your number, so to speak, “It would only require a phone book to map most people’s phone numbers to their identities,” said Peter Eckersley, a computer science PhD who is technology projects director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The same goes for the people you call, and “for those people who aren’t listed in the phone book, there are many other sources for this data,” Eckersley said.

And once they have your name, your address is easy.

What if you’re moving around with a cell phone?

The court order also demands “trunk identifiers,” which identify cell towers where the call enters a carrier’s network, according to Ronald Koziel, a retired Bell Labs engineer who teaches wireless telecommunications at DePaul University.

“Definitely you could tell the location, at least within a certain range,” said Koziel.

And those locations “are going to reveal your travel habits,” said Eckersley.

“There’s a pattern revealed by this data,” said Eckersley. “If studied either by an intelligent human being or a clever algorithm, it will reveal a great deal about your personal life.”

And don’t think of hiding behind Internet-based phone services such as Vonage and magicJack. They they have been required by federal law to upgrade their networks to allow similar metadata to be collected from their customers.

Skype, before it was taken over by Microsoft last year, refused to turn over data to governments. But Microsoft has not yet said whether it is cooperating with government requests for Skype data.

One way to make surveillance harder would be to do what drug dealers do: use cheap prepaid wireless cell phones, often called “burn” phones. Since there is no name associated with the number it would be harder for the government to identify the owner. Still, the government could possibly identify anyone you call on a “non-burn” phone and trace it back to you.

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