"NO ONE is listening to your calls," soothed President Barack Obama last week, following the revelation that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been collecting data about telephone and online communications on a truly epic scale. But Obama's pledge is nothing like as reassuring as it might sound.
When it comes to profiling individuals, metadata about calls – who calls whom, when and where – can be as powerful as what is said. Such information is not safeguarded by the US constitution, unlike the content of the calls. And there is scant, if any, protection for millions of non-US citizens using US-based services.
Should we be concerned? One argument, echoed by the likes of UK foreign secretary William Hague, is that those with "nothing to hide" have nothing to fear. This is at best mistaken, and at worst disingenuous. Privacy depends on context: a youthful indiscretion may cause problems in later life, and what's accepted on Facebook may not be safe in the workplace – or when the government changes.