PRISM yourself with Immersion, an MIT data mining tool

Wondering what kind of information can be gleaned from your metadata? A new project, years in the works, from MIT’s Media Lab maps out your social networks all by tapping into your email metadata — similar to the analysis the National Security Agency does with its recently disclosed data gathering.

It looks at who you emailed to build up a relatively precise map of your friendships, professional contacts, and other intertwinings, all within a few minutes of you giving the software access to your GMail account (so far, it only supports Google’s popular email service).

Within half an hour, it had 300,000 of my emails, showing where college friendships bled into professional networks which dipped into various circles of friends, all based on the humble TO: and CC: fields. It was a much more intimate graph than Facebook has ever shown me, for sure.


The projects official launch is timely, and one of the site’s creators say that academics have talked about the importance of metadata for years with little public resonance — until the NSA leaks.

“It’s like the world is catching up to what a fringe group of academics was aware of in 2004 and 2005,’’ César Hidalgo told the Globe in a recent interview. “Nobody liked [thinking about metadata], and nobody cared about us, and they all thought that working with mobile phone records or e-mails was sort of a curiosity or a stupidity.’’

His work is no longer merely a curiosity: It’s been profiled by Time and helping put context between a difficult-to-parse technology and policy debate.

It’s also, as I discovered, a deeply personal experience and a new way to reflect upon the digital company you keep.

Or as the site so aptly puts it:

“ 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.’’

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