How A Little Metadata Made It Possible To Find FBI Director James Comey's Secret Twitter Account


For a few years now, our intelligence overseers have been insisting that we shouldn't be too concerned about surveillance programs that collect "just metadata" because that doesn't really reveal too much. But, of course, we've shown how "just metadata" can ruin a career diplomat's life, and former NSA/CIA boss Michael Hayden has admitted that the US kills people based on metadata.
Either way, I find it fascinating that reporter Ashley Feinberg needed just a few small bits of innocent metadata from FBI Director James Comey to track down his secret Twitter account. It took her all of four hours or so. Just last night, Comey admitted that he was on Twitter, leading lots of people to go searching for the account since there is no official one. I won't describe all of how Feinberg tracked it down (it involves some pretty excellent sleuthing and is worth reading) but suffice it to say, it's metadata that gives Comey away. The account, @projectexile7, was then almost certainly confirmed as Comey's based on metadata about who was following it, who it was following, and what it liked:
But how to be sure? There is only one person currently following the account: Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare. Wittes is no Twitter neophyte. He is an active user with more than 25,000 followers, and he only follows 1,178 accounts—meaning he is not a subscriber to the “followback” philosophy. If he is following a random egg—and is the only account following it—there is probably a reason.
That reason could be the fact that, as Wittes wrote here, he is a personal friend of James Comey. (We’ve reached out to Wittes for comment but have yet to hear back.)
Project Exile happens to be a federal program that James Comey helped develop when he was a U.S. attorney living in Richmond. And then, of course, there are the follows.
ProjectExile7 follows 27 other accounts, the majority of which are either reporters, news outlets, or official government and law enforcement accounts. The New York Times' Adam Goldman and David Sanger and the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima and David Ignatius, all of whom have been aggressively covering the FBI investigation into Trump’s contacts with Russian agents, made the list, as did Wittes and former Bush Administration colleague Jack Goldsmith. Donald Trump is on there, too, but @projectexile7 seems to have begun following him relatively recently (its first follow was @nytimes).
There are two outliers: William & Mary News (where Comey attended undergrad) and our colleagues at The Onion (everyone deserves to have fun)