The picture above shows the result of this data collection program. The graph represents email addresses and the exchanges between them. Without more context it’s impossible to interpret the graph with certainty. Two points or nodes seem to gather most connections : they probably are the email addresses of Ren Zhengfei and Sun Yafan, the CEO and the Chiarwoman of Huawei.
They seem to have different profiles. Mr Zhengfei, on the left, has an extensive network of close to 100 persons. It is made up of a first set of people who form a circle close to him and of s second circle of more distant people. Ms. Yafang has a smaller network with only a few common contacts with Mr. Zhengfei.
Without context, the graph leaves open a lot of questions :
- are the emails collected only from people within Huawei?
- how are the nodes within the graph positioned? is the first circle of contacts around Huawei’s CEO made of the people he emails the most? who are these people?
- why has Huawei’s Chairwoman so few contacts? is she using a secondary mail address? does she prefer communicating over phone?
- who are the people connecting Mr. Zhengfei and Ms. Yafang?
The metadata of Huawei’s emails offers an interesting perspective on the social networks of key leaders within the organization. Without even looking at the actual content of their mails, the NSA can use graph visualization to identify with whom they communicate and the relative power and influence of their contacts.
Graph visualization is a key technique to analyse large data sets. It can make apparent the links and structure that are hard to grasp with tabular-oriented tools.
The way the NSA uses graph visualization is just one of the many ways to turn emails into insights. For example, scientists and investigators have used the Enron emails to understand a fraud scheme and the responsibilities of its participants. You can visualize your own email too with a project from MIT called Immersion. You can even do the same thing with Neo4j and Linkurious, just follow this quick guide !