Metadata in Context – An Ontological and Normative Analysis of the NSA’s Bulk Telephony Metadata Collection Program


In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the National Security Agency (NSA) responded to fears about warrantless domestic surveillance programs by emphasizing that it was collecting only the metadata, and not the content, of communications. When justifying its activities, the NSA offered the following rationale: because data involves content and metadata does not, a reasonable expectation of privacy extends only to the former but not the latter. Our paper questions the soundness of this argument. More specifically, we argue that privacy is defined not only by the types of information at hand, but also by the context in which the information is collected. This context has changed dramatically. Defining privacy as contextual integrity we are able, in the first place, to explain why the bulk telephony metadata collection program violated expectations of privacy and, in the second, to evaluate whether the benefits to national security provided by the program can be justified in light of the program’s material costs, on the one hand, and its infringements on civil liberties, on the other hand.

A terrific paper from Paula Kift and Helen Nissenbaum.