Metadeath: How does metadata surveillance inform lethal consequences?

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


The disclosures by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden appear to reveal the extent to which the Intelligence Community relies upon bulk metadata surveillance technologies. As General Michael Hayden, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the NSA, confirmed after the Snowden disclosures, “We kill people based on metadata.” This implies that metadata surveillance is now used to help inform drone strikes and targeted killing practices. But the Snowden disclosures pose this question as well: Are we killing people based on big data and not intelligence? In a small-data world, human analysts were capable of converting data into intelligence. The Snowden disclosures and other reports have revealed that in a big-data world, it appears that we now resort to algorithms and supercomputing tools, and other forms of artificial intelligence, because we do not have the human capacity to analyze all of the data collected. Some within the NSA have concluded that “data is not intelligence[.]” In fact, some experts have explained that big-data projects an algorithmic hologram rather than reflecting reality. Whether the hologram of big-data cyber surveillance is more accurate and reliable than the reality of human intelligence and traditional signals intelligence appears to be openly debated within the NSA. According to one Snowden document, “the author of a ‘SIGINT [Signals Intelligence] Philosopher’ column wrote that if the NSA was a corporation, it could have the following mission statement: ‘building informed decision makers – so that targets do not suffer our nation's wrath unless they really deserve it – by exercising deity-like monitoring of the target.’” The “deity-like monitoring” of individuals was impossible prior to the advent of metadata surveillance and other technological advances that have facilitated ubiquitous cyber surveillance in the Information Age and Big-Data Revolution. Similarly, traditional surveillance methods did not necessarily entail “building” decision makers though supercomputing advances. Historically, surveillance tools served human decision making processes. The big-data world has inverted multiple collection and decision making processes. From the Snowden disclosures, it appears that humans now serve big-data cyber surveillance processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPrivacy and Power
Subtitle of host publicationA Transatlantic Dialogue in the Shadow of the NSA-Affair
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9781316658888
ISBN (Print)9781107154049
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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