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The NSA Analyses Telephony Metadata – Do You?

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Analysis of Phone Data Can Have Powerful Results

The Guardian newspaper broke the news a couple of weeks ago that the National Security Agency (NSA) received a court order requiring Verizon to turn over information about millions of phone calls made though their network.  Since then, other technology companies including Facebook and Google have acknowledged that they too provided metadata to the agency.  Responding to widespread concern about the program, President Obama explained,

“When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls.  That’s not what this program is about.  As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls… by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”

ShoreTel does not take a position on the constitutionality or wisdom of the program, but it does bring up an important point, telephony metadata is powerful stuff.

What Is Telephony Metadata?

Metadata is a term that means “data about data.”  For example, if you create a document in Word, the document's metadata includes information about who created the document, when it was last updated, the size of the file and so forth.  That’s metadata.

When it comes to telephony, metadata is the information about phone calls.  It includes information about which number placed the call, which number was dialed, the duration of the call and potentially more.  You don’t have to do anything special to create metadata.  It just happens.  As the president correctly asserted, the metadata does not reveal the content of the conversation.  (If it wants to listen to calls, NSA must obtain a court order through a separate process.)

Why is It Useful?

So, if the metadata doesn't contain the content of the call, what does it reveal?  Metadata about an individual call might not be that useful, but when a large number of calls are analyzed, patterns start to emerge.  Relationships and behavior can be revealed.    For example, if you call someone at noon and talk for an hour every Sunday, it might be your mom and it certainly isn’t a stranger.

When you think about the metadata for mobile calls, even more information can be uncovered.  You could determine if several individuals were together in a certain place and if they traveled together, or met frequently.  This information becomes even more powerful when combined with other intelligence, such as the identity or occupation of one of the call participants.

What Does It Mean for Business?

FedEx founder and CEO, Fred Smith, famously said, “The information about the package is as important as the package itself.”  This is true for information about phone calls as well.

If you analyze the phone calls made by and to your company, critical information about the health of the business can be revealed.  For example, when is your support line busiest?  Does it vary by the day of the week or time of year?  Understanding this can lead to smarter staffing decisions and result in better customer service and reduced cost.

Powerful.  And just like NSA, if you add more information to the mix, for example by unifying your phone system and CRM data, even more useful information can be obtained.  Think about measuring sales productivity.  A two hour call to someone who is not in the prospect or customer database, probably isn’t a sales call.

Just like NSA hopes that the country’s telephony metadata will reveal the patterns and behaviors of terrorists so they can be caught; careful analysis of your company’s metadata, easily available with cloud-based business phone systems like ShoreTel Sky, can shed light on the behaviors of your customers and employees so processes can be improved and revenue can be maximized.