This morning, President Barack Obama kicked off his speech on NSA surveillance reform with a reference to Paul Revere, the famous patriot of the American Revolution who warned that the British were coming. President Obama held up Revere as a symbol of the importance of US surveillance:
At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the "The Sons of Liberty" was established in Boston. The group's members included Paul Revere, and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America's early Patriots.
Ironically, if the British crown had the same surveillance powers in 1775 that the United States does today, Paul Revere would probably have been languishing in a prison cell instead of making his midnight ride. In June, Duke University sociology professor Kieran Healy cleverly explained how metadata alone could have led to Revere's arrest. Simply by mapping out the relationships between known members of seven different Boston social clubs that existed at the time, you find Paul Revere at the center.
Here's a close-up:
While this only proves that Revere was a highly connected individual, a bridge between various social circles, that would have made him a person of interest at the very least, and all the crown needed was a little bit of metadata to know precisely who to target for a deeper investigation. With today's technology and bulk data collection, computers could be programmed to highlight such individuals automatically, so it's not hard to imagine why critics aren't satisfied that the US government doesn't actually listen to telephone calls or read the contents of email. Just knowing who is connected to who is a very powerful tool. Metadata matters.
Of course, this is exactly what the US government hopes metadata could accomplish: stopping plots. Paul Revere would certainly have been a terrorist as far as the British were concerned.