Immersion: Using E-Mail Data to Connect the Dots of Your Life

Brian Chen in The New York Times: “The Obama administration for over two years allowed the National Security Agency to collect enormous amounts of metadata on e-mail usage by Americans, according to one of the latest leaks of government documents by the now-famous whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden.
But what is e-mail metadata anyway? It’s information about the people you’re sending e-mails to and receiving e-mails from, and the times that the messages were sent — as opposed to the contents of the messages. It’s the digital equivalent of a postal service worker looking at your mail envelope instead of opening it up and reading what’s inside.
That sounds harmless, but it turns out your e-mail metadata can be used to connect the dots of your life story. I learned this from participating in Immersion, a project by M.I.T.’s Media Laboratory, earlier reported by my colleague Juliet Lapidos. Immersion is a tool that mines your e-mail metadata and automatically stitches it all together into an interactive graphic. The result is a creepy spider web showing all the people you’ve corresponded with, how they know each other, and who your closest friends and professional partners are.
After entering my Google mail credentials, Immersion took five minutes to stitch together metadata from e-mails going back eight years. A quick glimpse at my results gives an accurate description of my life.”
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