Thanks to Edward Snowden, a seemingly endless stream of politicians, political pundits and intelligence personalities have attempted to assuage our intrinsic and well-founded fear of the collection activities that have been accumulating and analyzing our data. The word that we’ve heard over and over from everyone, including the President, that is supposed to make us feel better is metadata.
This doesn’t make me feel any better and it shouldn’t make you feel that way, either.
The reason I don’t feel any better is because metadata isn’t some special kind of less important detritus that hangs out with your data. Metadata is data, and no amount of wordplay can change that.
What’s more important than what something is called—data or metadata—is how it is being used and what questions are being answered. Let’s use some examples from the kind of data that we now know the NSA is and is not collecting. For these examples, assume that I am attempting to collect data about you, dear reader.
If I believe that you are communicating with an interesting third party, and want to know what you talk about, I’m out of luck. Everyone agrees that the collected data does not include the content of the calls. If, however, what I want to know is whether or not you’ve spoken, I have everything I need. Your call activity includes the time and length of every call you’ve made—not only to the party of interest, but to all of your contacts.
I can tell how often you talk to them, if there are patterns in the times of calls, and who you call before or after the party of interest. You cell phone metadata is, precisely, the data I need to answer my questions.
What if I want to determine if you were at the scene of a crime (or political meeting or protest)? Again, the data I need is available in your cell phone metadata. I can see the cell towers used for all calls, data and text messages with timestamps and, possibly, depending on what the phone company has collected, every single cell tower your phone registered with in a given time period.
Certainly this is metadata if we want to know about the use of your cell phone, but it is data associated with your location.
There is nothing special about metadata that makes it more or less than data. What matters is what question we’re trying to answer.