Visualizing Your Own Network Using Email Metadata

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, July 12, 2013, 8:28 AM

Imagine for a moment that the extended network around Lawfare were a terrorist organization. And imagine as welll that the NSA or the FBI wanted to use their now-very-public metadata analysis programs to analyze this network. What could it do and learn with only, say, my email metadata?

Thanks to a remarkable new experimental program called Immersion, created by a group at MIT, you can find out what your Gmail metadata reveals about you. I use Gmail a great deal, so I was curious to see what it would reveal about Lawfare's network. Immersion grabs your Gmail metadata (it allows you to erase it all), and it then analyzes and visualizes patterns of contact based on the patterns of whom you are sending emails to and receiving them from. As its creators say:

Just like a cubist painting, Immersion presents users with a number of different perspectives of their email data.

It provides a tool for self-reflection at a time where the zeitgeist is one of self-promotion.
It provides an artistic representation that exists only in the presence of the visitor.
It helps explore privacy by showing users data that they have already shared with others.
Finally, it presents users wanting to be more strategic with their professional interactions, with a map to plan more effectively who they connect with.

So Immersion is not about one thing. It’s about four. It’s about self-reflection, art, privacy and strategy. It’s about providing users with a number of different perspectives by leveraging on the fact that the web, and emails, are now an important part of our past.

In Lawfare's case, the result is really quite astonishing. To protect sources and confidences, I have scrubbed the following data visualization of any names, but I'll reveal a few non-sensitive facts that give a flavor of how revealing my metadata is. The three big bubbles in the middle---that is, the people at the heart of Lawfare's network---represent Bobby (middle blue bubble), Jack (big blue bubble), and Larkin Reynolds (big orange bubble). Larkin, for those readers who are new to the site, played a big early role in getting Lawfare off the ground and is now one of our lawyers and our day-to-day contact among a group of lawyers helping us. The blue and orange clusters, in general, represent Lawfare; the green cluster represents Bookings; the red cluster is my family.

Not quite everyone who has played a significant role in Lawfare is represented visually here in proportion to his or her role; Wells, for example, is conspicuously missing or underplayed---though he shows up more prominently if one looks at a recent subset of the data, reflecting an emerging role over the past year. Raffaela and Ritika are both smaller dots than they should be. Interestingly, my wife is missing from both my family and from my Brookings network visualizations, though she and I trade an enormous volume of emails every day. So the system is not perfect. That said, one could get a pretty detailed sense of who is important in Lawfare's day-to-day operations, including many of our major government contacts, by looking at this visualization. If Lawfare accepted classified leaks, which we don't, and I were investigating one of them, I would certainly want to start with a graph like this. And if Lawfare were a terrorist group, the graph would give a remarkable road map to the list of people involved---and a crude but not inaccurate sense of their relative importance.

Here's a video about the project; I highly recommend exploring Immersion a bit:

Immersion: Beneath the surface from Deepak Jagdish on Vimeo.